Marc Alan Fishman: Big Hero 6, Style and Substance

So the wife and I celebrated our five years doin’ it legal style with an Iron Chef dinner followed by Big Hero 6. If you don’t get how awesome that is, then you don’t understand why I married my wife. Our meal was fantastic. The movie? Dare I say it… just as good.

Big Hero 6 is a big, wide-eyed action-adventure that skews towards the young at heart. Born by way of a not-really-well-known Marvel series (c. 1998, and then again in 2008) turned inside-out into a brand new property for the House of Mouse. The team behind Frozen – that flick about the Nordic chic who opted to not live at Professor X’s house – and Wreck-It Ralph, provided the visuals. Joe Kelly, Steven T. Seagle, and Duncan Rouleau provided the script.

The flick itself is power-struggle between slick and polished style, and throaty topics that are typical to Disney kids fare. One minute, the camera swoops and pans over a computer-processed mashup of San Francisco and Tokyo. Our hero’s brother is tragically killed while trying to be a hero. And forgive me for not yelling “Spoiler Alert.” As I said: this is a Disney movie. For every action sequence that litters the screen in jaw-dropping coolness, there’s an equally potent plot point revolving around the acceptance of death in life. When you really consider that, it’s a hard mix to make, and BH6 pulls it off in spades.

I realize now that this is quickly becoming a second class Snarky Synopsis. But it needn’t be. The movie is great. Go see it.

The real meat I want to sink my teeth into here is in the balance of the presentation. Too often I’ve heard complaints that all ages properties are limited by the constraints of the social contract. Take away the blood, guts, swears, and boobs and you’re swimming with cement shoes. Movies like BH6 prove that’s the kind of excuse someone hides behind. Here’s a movie that presents us with death, revenge, vengeance, and justice and doesn’t dumb it down or shy away from uncomfortable feelings. Better than that, the script doesn’t feel the need to yell these motifs at us; instead, it presents them fairly matter-of-factly, before reverting back into explosions, lasers, and visual cacophony.

If there’s beef to have (because pobody’s nerfect) it only comes when BH6 follows to closely to the paint-by-numbers plotting. There’s little stretch to be had with the story beats hit across the 90 or so minutes. Essentially our Hiro (that’s funny cause the hero’s name is… well…) suffers a big loss, tries to bury his feelings, before being forced to confront them literally in the form of his arch nemesis. And in between he learns what it means to be a good friend, a good leader, and a great nephew to his aunt (his caretaker). Who knew all it could take was his genius invention being stolen, used for nefarious purposes, and an amazingly heart-jerking sacrifice to reach catharsis!

As stated above, Big Hero 6 is a battle of style versus substance. Because the CGI created universe is well-formed, highly detailed, and full of personality, it’s easy to overlook some of the more predictable beats. And if there’s ever a case to defend an all ages property to sticking towards tropes that work, this would be a fine example. Here’s a tip of the cap to those screenplays that come straight off the shelf, made better through the sum of all the parts the film makers build over the basic skeleton. The style begets the substance. Under a lesser lens, this movie would be written off as just another romp around CGI-land (See Madagascar, and several other wastes of celluloid). Instead, the witty script, memorable characterization, and truly sharp design (the city, Baymax, and the villain being the largest standouts) elevate the story to be enjoyed across all ages.

If more material could be produced with the same verve, we’d be living in a golden era. While Marvel and DC salt their Earths with their overblown comic continuity on a week to week basis, here in the movies we’re getting fully realized properties seemingly unafraid of shying away from the grim and gritty. In the case of Big Hero 6, when the grim and gritty need to come out there’s enough cushion of well-thought out and earned bravado to allow for shades of grey. Here’s to a bit more of that in the coming times for we, the content creators and, more important, the content consumers.