Otakool for Kids
It occasionally occurs to me that not having small people in my life means I am effectively cutting myself off from great swathes of popular culture and entertainment (in much the same way that it's only when visiting my parents that I get properly exposed to antiques-based game shows and non-threatening police procedural dramas). I am aware that wanting more of a pretext to watch kids' films would be a dubious pretext for embarking on the exploit of parenthood, but, hey, at least I'm aware of that, and the prospect seems reassuringly remote anyway.
All this flickered through my head during the trailers preceding Don Hall and Chris Williams' Big Hero 6, which were themselves preceded by the not-entirely-family-friendly soundtrack to Halloween, played into the auditorium. No juvenile sensibilities were in danger, however, as it looked very much like I was the only person present in this great cathedral of cinema, almost undoubtedly the classiest movie theatre in Oxford (my solitude being something we may well return to later).
It was in this magnificent isolation that I settled back to enjoy a superior bit of entertainment. The tale unfolds in the quasi-futuristic city of San Fransokyo (torii motifs adorn the Golden Gate Bridge, in the first of many neat visual puns), and concerns the Harada brothers: Hiro (Ryan Potter), a prodigiously talented teenage technician and robotics engineer, and his less talented but more responsible elder, Tadashi (Daniel Henney). Seeking to wean Hiro away from the local Robot Wars scene which is absorbing all his attention, Tadashi introduces him to his techie friends from university, and his own pet project, Baymax (Scott Adsit). Baymax is a somewhat zeppelin-like robo-nurse, whom Hiro is less than impressed by, but the lad still becomes determined to get into the university.
To this end he creates micro-bots, a swarm of telepathically-controlled mini-modules with a plethora of uses, but they are stolen by a mysterious figure during a lethal fire. Hiro manages to track the miscreant down, but soon realises that even teaching Baymax karate will not give him the power he needs to stop the villain's scheme. And so he sets about helping convert his friends' own techie projects into the basis for more useful applications. And so a set of cheerily coloured costumed identities with rather variable codenames is born – Hiro, Baymax, GoGo, Wasabi, Honey Lemon, and Fredzilla! Or, to put it another way – Big Hero 6!
I must confess to being rather intrigued by the origins of this movie, which is the result of Disney's acquisition of the Marvel group a few years back: Disney's animation arm were encouraged to rifle through Marvel's back catalogue in search of promising ideas for new movies, and this is the result. Big Hero 6 started off as a superhero team with fairly strong connections to the X-Men – a version of the original team leader appeared in The Wolverine – but this film does not appear under the Marvel marque, nor is the company credited especially prominently.
As you might therefore expect, the characters and premise of the comic have been radically reconceived and the result is a much more child-friendly standalone film – that said, there is still a droll Stan Lee cameo and the convention of the post-credits scene continues unabated. (Apparently there are also numerous easter egg references to incredibly obscure Marvel characters, but even I didn't spot these.) But this film, for all its Manga-inflected visuals and designs, is still very much its own thing.
Perhaps this is why the adult audiences which usually attend non-animated Marvel projects were notable not in attendance at this one, but I doubt it. All right, so I went to see a weekday matinee of Big Hero 6, so all the target-audience kids were in school: but I bet that if go to a weekday matinee of Age of Ultron or Ant-Man in the week of their UK release, I won't be alone there. It can't be the subject matter but the animated form itself which makes people dismiss this kind of film as kid's stuff. Frankly, I'm dubious: superhero stories are all, ultimately, cut from the same substance, and it seems spurious to me to claim that Big Hero 6 is a children's film while the latest outing for Captain America or Spider-Man is mature, serious entertainment.
Anyway, 'being its own thing' basically means the movie is, from a certain point of view, pretty similar to every other film from Pixar-now-Disney in recent years. That sounds like an implied criticism, but it only really qualifies as such if you consider gorgeous animation, stunning attention to detail, strong characterisation, a solid narrative structure, many decent jokes and a nice sensible moral underpinning for the kids to be bad things. If you consider this to be an SF movie, then it's not nearly as unutterably lovely as Wall-E, and if you think of it as a superhero film, it's not quite as inventive and loving a pastiche as The Incredibles, but there's still very little wrong with it as a piece of family entertainment.
Personally I'm inclined to go with the latter, mainly on the strength of the Marvel origins, and Big Hero 6's action sequences do capture the excitement and inventiveness of the best superhero conflicts admirably. It's a bit of a shame that the story is structured so heavily around Hiro and Baymax, and indeed that most of the team have had their powers radically reconceived, because everyone else does end up feeling a little bit secondary: but Baymax himself, never quite forgetting that he is, after all, supposed to be a nurse, is a cherishable creation and a very funny character: meticulously brought to life, as you'd expect.
The plot of the movie is inventive enough, even if some of the twists along the way are rather easy to predict well in advance: I suppose it's just possible that under-10s may not see them coming. I also thought the sensible moral underpinning – this film is fundamentally about coming to terms with grief – was to some extent weakened by a couple of aspects of the conclusion. But these, apart from my very non-specific disappointment that this wasn't more explicitly or faithfully a Marvel-based movie, were the only grounds I could find for criticising it. You could do very much worse than take your kids to see this; if they made a sequel I would certainly give it time of day. This may not be the biggest superhero movie of the year – there's very little doubt as to what that's going to be, I think – but this could very well turn out to be the most colourful and fun.