April 27, 2015

Big Hero 6

A cool concept, I argue in my review of Patema Inverted, is not the same thing as a plot, but can fake it for ninety minutes or so. The same thing goes for inventive settings and ingenious "MacGuffins." As Wikipedia explains:

A MacGuffin is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation.

Big Hero 6 is a comic book movie constructed out of a bunch of MacGuffins and hand-waves. And not much in the way of plot.

Unlike Patema Inverted, it actually does have a plot. But it's so by-the-numbers that the writers can't resist commenting on the fact, as if to stave off criticism that they didn't know they were doing "the same only--" Well, mostly the same.

So a few bars of "Eye of the Tiger" launches the de rigueur montage sequence. "Fred" (the designated comic book guy who's also the comic relief) shouts at one point: "Hey, it's an origins story!" Stan Lee makes a cameo after the credit roll.

The hero is Hiro, an orphaned teen genius living in "San Fransokyo" with his aunt and older brother, Tadashi. Unlike his older brother, Hiro wastes his prodigious talents betting on underground robot fights (and winning big).

In an effort to set his sights higher, Tadashi introduces Hiro to his fellow grad students at the university robotics lab. Tadashi's senior project is "Baymax," a cuddly medical diagnostic robot that resembles the Michelin Man.

At this university, you can apparently bypass the whole matriculation process and invent yourself right into school. The challenge posed, Hiro comes up with the "microbot," actuated joints that swarm together and self-assemble like Lego blocks.

But then a mysterious explosion kills his brother and supposedly destroys the microbots. (Note that Hiro loses his entire nuclear family in the first twenty minutes, but it's so in tune with the superhero monomyth it jars less than it should.)

In order to track down the villain, Hiro teams up with a retooled Baymax and the rest of the Tadashi's eccentric roboticist friends. We're in ensemble Iron Man territory. Their superhero suits allow them to leap over gigantic plot holes in a single bound.

You really do not want to stop and think about all the disbelief you're being asked to suspend. I did appreciate that only an office building gets destroyed in the climax and the "evil capitalist" turns out to be mostly a red herring.

As a Marvel comic book movie, it'd be one of their better efforts. As a Marvel + Disney collaboration (Disney owns Marvel), well, it's not The Incredibles. Or Frozen. Or Tangled. It's a pretty good cartoon! Just not as good as it could be.

Rather like our protagonist at the beginning of the story, Big Hero 6 is overshadowed by its own unexploited potential. The problem is, the most interesting parts of the movie are the MacGuffins, and they are rendered almost invisible.

The microbots, to start with. And everything else our superheroes invent practically on the spur of the moment. Tony Stark really had to work at that "99 percent perspiration" stuff. And it still took a couple of iterations to get the Iron Man suit right.

And unlike Big Hero 6, the world (and especially the world's militaries) immediately took notice of Tony Stark. A world so blasé about breakthroughs in applied science can't help but bore me (which is which so many superhero flicks end up boring me).

Doubly so for a world so blasé about a place like "San Fransokyo." The backstory is easy to imagine: the "big one" hits Tokyo and millions immigrate to the West Coast of the United States.

Imagine the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, only with better weather and zoning laws. San Fransokyo is one big Little Tokyo. Kanji signage dot the streets. The towers of the Golden Gate Bridge resemble torii gates.

Alas, we barely get to savor any of this. It blurs past. Besides a couple of Asian characters and some cool backgrounds, it has no obvious impact on the story at all (police cars do sport Japanese-style light bars).

Second, Alistair Krei, the "evil" capitalist and supposed antagonist, has built himself a freaking Stargate. No, really, it's the Stargate! Works the same too. That's the kind of thing you could do a whole movie about (plus three television series).

I mean, a wormhole transporter that passes through a different dimension! And yet, again, this total upending of science goes utterly unremarked upon. It's nothing more than another disposable MacGuffin.

Now, like Hiro's self-assembling robots, Big Hero 6 has all the hallmarks of a sequel-making machine. So maybe we'll still get to explore the heart of San Fransokyo. Maybe Krei will fix up those Stargates and do some off-world exploring.

We've got some first-rate world creation going on here, a world that only needs a cast of characters to actually live in it.

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# posted by Blogger Katherine Woodbury
9/28/2017 7:50 AM   
I finally saw this! I enjoyed it, mostly because my expectations were somewhere in the vicinity of non-existent (in fact, I only watched it because one of my students wrote a positive essay about it). It definitely has that Blade Runner vibe (only Disney-fied) but so entirely off-the-cuff that it took me half the movie just to pick up on the San Fransokyo thing (I picked up on the slightly-in-the-future element at least).

I totally guessed the villain.

The family plot--and Baymax--is stellar. In fact, I was somewhat impressed that we were allowed to invest so much in the brother, making his death that much more painful. The interactions between Hero, his brother, the aunt, and Baymax plus the theme surrounding them is perfect.

Everything else is filler--about 65 out of 100 minutes of filler, so that's a lot of filler, but I greatly enjoyed much of it. For instance, I thought the policeman's utter indifference to Baymax was rather amusing and established the premise that there is so much invention going on in this city that the police have developed a rather intense indifference to anything that isn't noticeably criminal.

As you say, Eugene, it's the kind of premise (ho hum, another robot) that one could make an entire movie about!

I think that Big Hero 6 just manages to avoid the major pitfalls of movies like Spiderman 3 that try to fit too much into one movie, and the reason is the family plot. I'll admit, it gets a little bewildering to keep thinking, "Wow, that sequence with Krei and Callaghan could be a whole movie . . . and so could the invention of Baymax . . . and what about . . . wait, Callaghan has a daughter!?" Although I am generally not a fan of "bring back all the dead people," Hero's brother being the one who went through the wormhole may have rounded off the central plot a little more.

Still, I had a good (not forced) cry at the end, so the movie definitely works at that family-plot level.