The kids I took to see Big Hero 6 were convinced that the film was actually called Baymax. It’s easy to see the confusion: all the marketing has focussed on the big marshmallow-esque robot, and the film sort of does, too. The implied team of the film’s title feature, but at the end of the day, there is one thing that everyone, children and adults alike, will remember from Disney Animation’s latest, and that is the studio’s greatest animated character of their CG era.
The friendly healthcare robot was designed by Todashi, the brother of the prodigiously talented and subtly named Hiro. When Todashi dies in a tragic accident, and a villain starts to roam the streets of San Fransokyo, Hiro, Baymax and their science-genius friends form the titular group to defeat the mysterious masked man and find out what really happened to Todashi. As plots go, it’s fairly uninspiring, the central mystery having been likened by some critics – not unfairly – to an episode of Scooby Doo. The big finale, where the whole team work together and use their tech to intelligently battle a billion tiny bots, would not feel out of place on a Saturday morning cartoon, either; it’s a fairly disposable Disney denouement.
Except for when Baymax is involved.
There is much to admire about the film aside from Iron Man’s cuddly cousin. Where many superhero films are content to let thousands of civilians die and have whole cities erased for the sake of a BIG final act – ironically making them all uninteresting and indistinguishable from one another – Big Hero 6 is a superhero film with almost zero collateral damage. The team focus their skills and technology on protection, not violence, and this emphasis is crucial and refreshingly different. The animation is impressive, too, rendering the hybrid city of San Fransokyo in vivid colours that would make Christopher Nolan tut in disapproval. The whole film is just a lot of bright fun, and goes some way to restoring a light touch to the tired and serious superhero subgenre.
It is, however, all about Baymax. You are probably already familiar with his look: white airbags; a low centre of gravity; a face like an emoji. It’s a beautifully minimalistic piece of character design, making the most of Disney’s age old animation principle of Squash and Stretch (exactly what it sounds like), while maximising one of their other twelve principles, Appeal (the idea that every character should be animated in a way that appeals to an audience), simply through its movement. It’s textbook stuff – literally, in that the principles are laid out in The Illusion of Life, as close as Disney gets to a textbook – used since Snow White but here being applied with equally cutting edge technology. From the way that he waddles along, even when in a dramatic chase, to the way the tilt of his bulbous head can evoke emotions, Baymax shows that Disney are still masters of character animation, and that no matter how new and shiny your programmes are, you still have to use them well.
Baymax is more than just an object lesson in how to animate a character, he‘s also a perfect example of how to use character to explore themes in interesting and new ways. Grief and loss are weighty topics for a kids‘ film to tackle, but also important ones; kids all have to confront death for the first time at some point in their lives, so using cinema to explore that is a great idea. The first act gives Todashi enough screen time to really make his death felt by the audience, and the rest of the film is about coping with that loss. The directors use Baymax to explore this by the literal-thinking robot seeing Hiro’s sadness as something that can be cured and so the internal process of Hiro’s grief is externalised in a deft manner, managing to be light-hearted and funny without ever detracting from the seriousness of the topic. The themes are, therefore, inextricable from the two characters at the centre of the story.
The result is a character who, in a Disney film in the early ‘00s would have been a comedy sidekick, is now the emotional heart of the film. It’s a such a simple but effective concept it’s amazing it hasn’t been done that much before (something like Robot and Frank is the closest comparison). The finale only transcends its familiarity when it focuses on the relationship between Baymax and Hiro, and creates something special. Big Hero 6 as a whole, while a lot of fun, will not go down as one of the studio’s revered classics, but Baymax will be remembered as one of their greatest creations.
As I’ve previously mentioned, 2013 was a diresome year for fans of animation. Ideas were low, talent was apparently lower. Stinkers abounded and even the more dependable studios like Dreamworks and Pixar made either dreadful (in the case of Turbo) or underwhelming films (The Croods, Monsters University). The less said about Planes, the better. Thankfully, however, 2014 looks set to remedy the creative malaise experienced in the year we shall no longer talk about, so here are six animated films you should be getting excited about in the next twelve months.
The Wind Rises
Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film should be the main draw of the year based on the ‘directed by’ credit alone, but the fact that this has already been a huge (but controversial) hit in Japan should whet your appetite further. It’s attracted criticism from Japan’s political right wing for being too critical of war and from Japan’s political left wing for lionising the man who made planes that killed lots of people. Miyazaki has claimed he just wanted to tell a good story about a great engineer, so I think I’ll stick with his version of events. The trailer promises beautiful animation – as ever – and a chance for the legendary director to indulge in his love of flight. Expect one of his least fantastical films yet, but still filled with the sense of wonder that characterises all of his stories.
The Tale Of Princess Kaguya
Isao Takahata could be seen as the Ghibli outsider, despite being a collaborative partner with Miyazaki since the beginning of the studio. Although he has made some unforgettable films with the studio, he isn’t a well known name like Miyazaki and few people have seen Only Yesterday. His films tend to be far more low-key and reality based (apart from the bizarre Pom Poko), but that dynamic has shifted as this film – based on an ancient Japanese legend – is about a tiny girl who is discovered inside a bamboo shoot. Promising to be moving and enchanting, it’s Takahata’s first film in fourteen years. Welcome back.
How To Train Your Dragon 2
Almost any film this year could disappoint me and I wouldn’t mind, but my one hope for the year is that this doesn’t suck. I love the first one so much: the score; the animation; the ‘test drive’ scene. The early trailers for this suggest that it will be more of the same, so I’m cautiously excited. Let’s just hope it’s more Toy Story 2 than The Lion King 2 (which is actually ok, as Disney sequels go, but still: whyyyyyy).
Laika’s previous films Paranorman and Coraline were both visual marvels, stop-motion animations that defy the jerkiness often associated with the medium. The team have mastered the art of taking thousands of photos of tiny figurines and turning them into compelling, moving stories. The Boxtrolls is about a boy who has been raised by the titular monsters and has to save them when an exterminator threatens to wipe them out. Expect it to be a little bit macabre, beautifully animated and pushing the envelope for children’s entertainment.
Big Hero 6
Disney are on something of a roll at the moment so my apprehensions about this feature – sounds like the tone will be similar to The Incredibles, and it always irks me when Disney try to be Pixar; not sure I always like concept over character when done by Disney – are outweighed by general positive feelings towards the studio and curiosity as to what the apparently photo-real animation will end up looking like on the big screen. There hasn’t been much information released about this film yet, but I remember being worried that Frozen was going to suck and so I’ve decided to just wait and see with the House of Mouse. They’ve surprised me several times before, so I’m willing for that to happen again.
The Lego Movie
Phil Lord and Chris Miller made the magnificent Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs and the hilarious yet deceptively astute comedy 21 Jump Street, so with a 100% record so far I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt on this one, which could be dismissed cynically as a marketing ploy for the toymaking giants. The trailer already makes me laugh a lot, plus the song ‘Everything Is Awesome’ is, well, awesome. If anything, by casting Will Arnett as the caped crusader, The Lego Movie looks set to have the best onscreen Batman since Adam West.
2014 will also have a sequel to Planes, named Planes: Fire and Rescue. I shall endeavour to remain open minded…