Friday 6 March 2015

Micro kids: "Big Hero 6"

Whatever reservations this viewer had about 2013's Frozen, its colossal success appears to have given Disney's animation arm a shot of confidence: their latest, Big Hero 6, is not the work of a studio scrabbling for time, money or inspiration. Where its predecessor was an icy blast from the past - a throwback to the studio's fabular golden age - BH6 is more forward-thinking. Its animators have come up with an awesomely detailed environment in the futuristic kingdom of San Fransokyo - a hybrid locale which adds a dash of angular anime to the Disney house style, and is sure to play in the East as it has to the West - while indulging their love of all things robotic in every painstakingly rendered frame. The film wields the keys to the research-and-development lab in the same way the Toy Stories did those to the playbox.

In some way, BH6 marks a continuation of a profitable line. Pixar's great turn-of-the-century animations actively sought out new fields within which the company's worker ants and busy bees could strive to push the boundaries of the form: literally so, in the case of 1998's A Bug's Life, where the medium of choice was grass. Monsters, Inc. majored in fur; Finding Nemo dabbled in water. BH6 makes comparable play with nanobots and microbots, tricky little things that, like pixels, barely register in isolation yet which can be wrangled into towering and dynamic new forms. Yet what Disney has regained here is its sure feel for the manipulation of human emotion, a quality that got walloped into submission during Frozen by the relentlessly indelicate showstoppers and Broadway-ready spectacle.

The separation anxieties that have haunted Pixar's best-loved work (Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Up) recur here, underpinning a plot that sees reckless teenage protagonist Hiro lose a brother early on in a mysterious fire, yet gain a friend in Baymax, the inflatable robot healthcare provider bro was tinkering with shortly before his demise. What a creation Baymax is: big enough - and blank enough - for one to project all manner of metaphorical reasons onto him. Could he be the new home for the elder sibling's kindly, protective spirit, or has he just been fashioned in his creator's image? 

Given the marked Asian influence - and the close links Western animators have forged over the years with Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli - Baymax might even be seen as an Occidental redesign of Hayao Miyazaki's beloved Totoro: a creature who is clearly not of our world, yet who has been so carefully and cleverly anthropomorphised - the gentle voice (care of Scott Adsit, never so becalmed in 30 Rock), the curves that are as huggable now as they were back in 1928, when Uncle Walt first sketched Mickey Mouse, the eyes that are, by design, also a smile - that he may as well be. Celestial-white, and forever at Hiro's side, Baymax is that rare combination of guardian angel, all-night drugstore and liferaft: we can't help but cling to him.

Only in the matter of what to do with him does Big Hero 6 falter a little. The one thing modern Hollywood knows to do well is how to make a lot of money from 3D superhero movies, and so Hiro, Baymax and friends must take to the skies, donning power suits to duel with an aggrieved supervillain. The second half, which is basically Pixar's The Incredibles played straight, is accomplished rather than especially affecting or inspired; it's something of a disappointment that, once the film's technology has been assembled and roadtested, the screenwriters can think of nothing to do save smash up a city with it. (Now the raw material is falling masonry, and we've seen enough of that drop out of the screen and into our laps of late.)

What rescues it is that the animators never quite lose touch with the faces and hearts beneath the clanking metallic exoskeletons: you may emerge, as this viewer did, somewhat amazed at the fact these pixels have been used to generate a more human and rewarding effect than the notionally flesh-and-blood superhero business of Avengers Assemble achieved. If you wanted further proof of Disney's renewed creative confidence, look no further than the preceding short Feast, which observes the various stages of a relationship from the perspective of a hungry dog: it's the most heartwarming expression of family values - and the healthgiving benefits of companionship - this company has put forth for some time.

Big Hero 6 is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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