by D.W. Lundberg

Monday, March 30, 2015


First things first: Big Hero 6, Disney's 54th Animated Classic, is a charming, heartwarming, often exhilarating adventure that also happens to teach a valuable lesson about grief - how we cope with it, what we do with it, and how we channel that grief into something destructive or used for the greater good. (The screenplay, believe it or not, even incorporates Kübler-Ross's five stages of grief to some degree.) Having watched it at home for the 60th or 70th time (my five-year-old is obsessed with it), I can safely say that the fun and impact of the movie haven't lessened a bit since our first initial viewing - a sign of a quality film if there ever was one. What's also clear, and I'm surprised most reviews failed to focus on it, is that Big Hero 6 is very much a Comic Book Movie in the Marvel mold, with cuddlier characters and a CG bubble gum sheen to rank with Disney's finest.

"What's this?" you ask. "Big Hero 6 is based on a comic book?" "Why, yes," I reply, but one so obscure you're forgiven if you've never heard of it. Created by Steven T. Seagle and Duncan Rouleau (who own and operate Man of Action Entertainment, a writers' collective responsible for cartoons such as Ben 10 and Generator Rex), Big Hero 6 first appeared in a three-issue Marvel mini-series in September of 1998. They were a group of highly-intelligent super-beings, sanctioned by the Japanese government to protect the country from enemy attack. The team's initial roster included Silver Samurai/Kenuichio Harada (whose name should have extra resonance for X-Men fans), Sunfire/Shiro Yoshida, GoGo Tomago/Leiko Tanaka, Honey Lemon/Aiko Miyazaki, and Hiro Takachiho and his monster guardian, Baymax. (Future team members included Ebon Samurai, Fredzilla, and Wasabi-No-Ginger.) Needless to say, their comic book incarnations differ greatly from the characters in the film.

Following Disney's acquisition of Marvel in August of 2009, Mouse House executives quickly scoured Marvel's databases for a property they could turn into an animated film. Big Hero 6 fit that bill rather nicely, since they could take a lesser-known title and adapt it to their own sensibilities - without raising the ire of too many comic book fans. And so the characters become sufficiently Disney-fied. In the movie, Hiro gets a new last name (Hamada), an older brother (Tadashi Hamada has no equivalent in the original story), and dead/ absentee parents (in the comics, Hiro's mother is very much alive at the time Baymax is created). Baymax is no longer a "synthformer" capable of dragon, robot and humanoid modes, but a "personal healthcare companion" who dresses up as a rocket-powered robot. The rest of the team gets downgraded too: no longer super-powered, they are simply classmates of Hiro's, equipped with high-tech exosuits and weaponry to fight evil. (In the comics, Honey Lemon is a renowned martial artist and secret agent, GoGo is a reformed criminal who can transubstantiate her body into pure kinetic energy, Wasabi-No-Ginger is a chef/samurai with the ability to create weapons from his id, and Fred is able to conjure up a giant, Godzilla-like aura to protect him during battle.)

These changes were made, no doubt, to make the film more accessible to children (it's easier, for example, to identify with characters who are super- smart rather than super-powered). Yet the story also appealed to Disney, Marvel CCO Joe Quesada says, because "it's combined with these Marvel heroic arcs." And indeed, the script for Big Hero 6 seems to follow the same basic template as the last 6-7 Marvel movies, including a) the mystical/ magical whatsit that everyone tries to get their hands on, b) the characters who don't get along until the plot requires that they do, c) the lovable sidekick who "sacrifices" his/herself only to come back to life at the end, d) the obligatory Stan Lee cameo, and e) the obligatory end credits stinger that sets up the inevitable sequel. (Okay, so Big Hero 6 actually combines the last two.) The result is a film that can sit comfortably on a shelf alongside Disney's Animated Classics as well as Marvel's Cinematic Universe.

The Marvel-Disney connection doesn't end there, however. The makers of Big Hero 6 also manage to stuff the fringes of their film with equally obscure Marvel cameos. Fred's room is a virtual treasure trove of comic book references, including life-size replicas of (reformed) Daredevil villain Torpedo... Sub-mariner villain Orka (whose best friends were killer whales) and voodoo cult villain Black Talon (who dressed like a chicken, for some reason):

Orka's grimacing visage also appears as a pencil caddy on the desk where Baymax spoons with his friends like a "warm marshmallow":

Later, we see Hiro leafing through a copy of Marvel Premiere #32, starring Monark Starstalker:

As if those weren't obscure enough, check out the easter egg in this shot, from earlier in the film. The words "Ivy Gellar" are clearly printed on a sign just above Baymax's shoulder to the right:

That's an odd name for a store, is it not? Yet it's also the name of a character who appears in issue #48 of Marvel's Darkhawk. (Ivy's role is so inconsequential, in fact, you can't even find a picture of her online!) Clearly, the filmmakers traveled further down the rabbit hole than we probably expected.

This being Disney, of course, you can also expect characters from previous films to pop up in fleeting appearances. No doubt you're already well aware of the movie's many cameos from Frozen (2013):

But did you also happen to spot these references to Wreck-It Ralph (2012)?

Or, better yet, these character cameos com Bolt (2008)?

What about this blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance Oswald the Lucky Rabbit?

Setting Big Hero 6 in the fictional city of San Fransokyo pays unexpected dividends for anyone (like myself) who grew up on a steady diet of GoBots, Transformers and all things Japanese tokusatsu. Hiro's Mazinger Z-inspired wall clock, for instance:

Baymax's carbon fiber costume, while looking nothing like the comic book, could be inspired by Mazinger's fellow super robot Getter Dragon, from Japan's Getter Robo G cartoon series:

Not even Big Hero 6, it seems, is immune from the conventions of traditional storytelling. The ever-popular Rule of Threes, for example. The line "Look for another angle" is spoken three times throughout the script, first when Tadashi helps Hiro come up with the idea for his microbot experiment, a second time after the team's first encounter with the villain Yokai, and again during the climax, when the team is finally able to out-think and defeat their opponent.

No modern movie, as well, would be complete without the requisite Hey, Haven't I Seen This Exact Same Thing In Some Other Movie Before? scene. In this case, Hiro's realization that his best friend isn't quite dead will have extra resonance for anyone who remembers the end of The Iron Giant (1999), when Hogarth Hughes makes a similar discovery:

So it would appear that Big Hero 6 shares quite a lot with our cinema-going past, both Disney/Marvel-wise and otherwise-wise. Its success practically guarantees more comic book-based animated features in our future. (Its recent win for Best Animated Feature at this year's Academy Awards only cemented its reputation among its peers.) Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, per se. Just a friendly reminder that nothing rings the box office bell these days quite like our over-familiarity with a subject. Even if we aren't acutely aware of it at the time.

No comments:

Post a Comment