Big Hero 6 and the pleasures of animated superhero movies
My favorite superhero film remains The Incredibles. No superhero film before it or since has so deftly balanced so thoroughly engaging a story with an unrelenting sense of fun. Oh, there have been contenders for its belt. Heath Ledger’s performance as he Joker in The Dark Knight is one of those pitch-perfect turns that elevates the entire movie by setting a tone that reverberates throughout the whole film, like Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. As someone who has never hopped on the “Batman is the best superhero” bandwagon, The Dark Knight won me over by being the Joker’s movie.
This summer produced two films which announced their candidacies for my “favorite superhero movie” mantle: Captain American: The Winter Solider and Guardians of the Galaxy. Winter Soldier was a film blessedly devoid of plot excess, lean and thrilling. Superhero movies that trust in there lore- in this case, resting on Steve Rodgers’s lingering sadness over Bucky Barnes’s “death”- to drive the story without relying on excessive exposition are immensely satisfying. Make no mistake: Winter Soldier has more than its share of cheerful and goof moments, but it frequently ventures into shadows.
On the other hand, Guardians of the Galaxy was unabashedly goofy. In Chris Pratt it found the perfect star for this approach. Pratt has been one of the most charming actors on television for years. In Parks and Recreation, which boasts one TV’s most talented comic ensembles, he is frequently the standout performer. A lesser actor might have turned Peter Quill into a poor man’s Tony Stark, a repository of sass and snark and not much else. Pratt injects an sincere, just-a-bit sensitive core behind the smartassery. Pratt’s performance elevates the film much like Ledger’s elevated his, just in a different direction. Guardians of the Galaxy is a fun film, but without Pratt it could easily have teetered into a constant series of reminders that we weren’t supposed to take it too seriously. In an age dominated by sarcasm and irony, Pratt’s comic gift is how thoroughly he doesn’t break the fourth wall, and how convincingly he makes just about any setting feel like home.
But still, there was something missing in both those films that The Incredibles had, that special something that elevated The Incredibles to a higher tier: the ability to have fun with their material while still taking it seriously, and effortlessly changing gears between both tones without missing a bear. Having one overriding tone is not a flaw, but when sorting out my personal hierarchies, it can be a deciding factor. The Incredibles is no less interesting or engaging to me than The Dark Knight and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, no less willing to have fun with its material than Guardians of the Galaxy. But it has more fun with its material than those first two films and none of the arms-length self-awareness of the latter. The Increidbles is as earnest in its convictions as the 1978 version of Superman or the 2002 version of Spider-Man, only with none of their corniness.
I felt some of that same energy watching Big Hero 6. It’s not as good as The Incredibles or even Winter Soldier. Butt is the first superhero film since The Incredibles to take its material seriously without a stone face, to radiate with the joy of simply being fun without being obligated to find the material silly. And that both The Incredibles and Big Hero 6 are animated plays a big part in this sort of appeal.
I love animation for its ability to make any world feel fully alive. A live action film can be undone with poor special effects. Our point of view, no matter how otherworldly the plot might be, is always going to be rooted in reality. Sam Raimi’s 2002 version of Spider-Man suffered mightily for this; at times Spidey looked so rubbery that it broke the trance. Animated movies can render lo-fi universes without worrying about this effect- the immersiveness of the world tied to the scope of the artist’s vision. A literally sketchy film like Don Hertzfeldt’s Rejected is no less convincing in depicting its strange little universe than a technological wonder like How to Train Your Dragon 2, because realism is not the goal with animation. On the flip side, a live action rendering of Dragon would likely be much more difficult to do convincingly (considering how much of the Dragon’s emotional core relies on humans and dragons communicating directly, something that feels perfectly normal in animation). And a live action version of Rejected wouldn’t be Rejected, so let’s not even go there.
I have long felt that animation is an ideal format for superhero movies. The easy immersion into any world of the artist’s choosing, that 1:1 translation of an artist’s vision to the audience’s eyes, is what has made animation such an effective medium for fantasy. With animation, there’s no such thing as suspension of disbelief, because reality does not apply.
But in the modern (let’s say beginning with Raimi’s Spider-Man) era of superhero movies, The Incredibles had long been the only animated offering.
And lord, what a good offering it was. Right from the opening, its fleshes out the core cast of characters and the rules of the world they live in with a breezy sense of humor that nonetheless sets the stage for a meaty plot. We likely wouldn’t accept a Superman movie that opened with Superman shaking a cat free from a tree and defeating an evil mime on his way to his wedding, and then getting sued after the fact. But in a world as stylized as Brad Bird’s creation, every tone he aimed for fit. The goofiness was exactly what we expected from a movie with a futuristic 1960s aesthetic. The serious moments are earned from the realistic, at times unnervingly sad and human family drama that builds these characters.
A live action movie forcing actors to navigate these narrative waters would have a difficult time avoiding tonal dissonance. When a live-action movie or show adopts an “everything goes” style of storytelling, we call it “cartoonish”. It tends to be strictly comedy, shows like 30 Rock and Malcolm in the Middle. Navigating across tones and genres is doable in live-action, but difficult, requiring a razor-sharp directorial focus and vision, and actors game for the challenge. Films like Fargo and Dr. Strangelove are classics for a reason. But when such a story is animated, the material is much easier to digest, and more easily applicable to simpler genre films.
Big Hero 6 doesn’t quite pack the narrative punch of The Incredibles. Brad Bird’s film was as much a drama about the relationships within its titular family as it was a superhero movie, which is what helped make it so good. But Big Hero 6 does benefit from the same narrative freedom granted to it by its medium. The first major action sequence in the movie is a delirious chase sequence through the streets of “San Fransokyo”* The film’s primary villain is a mysterious figure in a kabuki mask, who moves atop a massive swarm of completely mind-controlled microbots that act as a sort of sapient, free-flowing silly putty. It’s a wonderful bit of character design, and in a superhero film universe increasingly filled with indistinct and boring villains, it was terrific just to see one who looked so damn cool.**
The scene has a reckless silliness that reminded me of some of the best Pixar action scenes- the door chase in Monsters Inc., the paper chase in Ratatouille, and my favorite, the 100 Mile Dash scene in The Incredibles. Yes, they could all technically have been done in live action, but there’s a joy in seeing a sinister figure atop a flowing black mountain towering over a cityscape and experiencing absolutely no dissonance: for that image to be as organic to the world of the movie as the heroes who are being chased. To some degree, we are always aware the special effects are special effects. But in good animation, nothing feels like a special effect. Everything feels like a part of the film’s reality.
*I admit, much more could have been done with this setting. Ostensibly a hybrid of two of the most visually distinct cities in the world, in the movie it comes across as San Francisco with occasional superficial Japanese motifs. For example, the Golden Gate Bridge has pagodas.
**While the best villains have backstories as interesting as any hero, I like to employ what I call the T-1000 rule now and then: A villain consisting of nothing but menace and a great visual design can be spectacular when done right. Technically, this might better be called the Darth Vader rule, given that that describes Vader in the first Star Wars film to a T, but it stopped applying to him the moment he uttered the word “father”.
Big Hero 6 lacks a truly compelling story for its villain, but it ended up being so much fun that I could forgive it that. It incorporates many of the expected elements of both superhero and Disney movies (tragic first acts, cuddly sidekicks) but they are seamlessly integrated. The other people who make of the team of six (Go-Go, Honey Lemon, Wasabi, and Fred) are all surprisingly distinct, and given plenty of character despite the limited runtime. Baymax is a delightful character, aided by a gentle and powerful voice performance by Scott Adsit. The protagonist, Hiro, is relateable and likeable even when he’s going through (usually completely understandable) bad moods. Their interactions are the heart of the movie and yes, it’s the most Disney film to stick its hero with a cuddly sidekick, but this hero and this sidekick felt fresh and new. The film relies a lot of physical comedy. Not pure slapstick, but the sight of the giant puffball that is Baymax trying to move around the world when he was clearly designed not to leave a room. Again, animation enhances the appeal of these scenes significantly. Baymax is every bit as normal resident in this world as Hiro. It’s easier to appreciate his physical comedy as a character, and not as a prop or an effect.
The Iron Giant is probably the finest example of a movie using the unique advantages of combining human and non-human characters in the same universe. The way that film continually came up with ways to creatively use space to create scenes with the Giant (Brad Bird again; where have you gone, dude?) was inspired, effortlessly flowing from desperate comedy to poignant drama.
Big Hero 6 still has a knack for physical comedy, though. A partially deflated Baymax is inherently hilarious, like an old basset hound rolling on its back, rolls of loose skin happily flopping everywhere. And his limited movement makes for some terrific tension in the early scenes that is easily combined with slapstick humor; for example at one point, Hiro and Baymax need to make a quick escape that’s impeded by Baymax’s inability to easily squeeze through a window. It’s a simple visual gag, but a funny one. It’s not quite the range of The Iron Giant, but the principles are the same: when you can easily integrate physically creative character, as animation allows you to do so easily, the possibilities for scenes that are just fun are endless, which for a superhero movie can be a priceless quality.
Big Hero 6 doesn’t quite have the deft control of its emotional range that makes for the upper echelon animated films. Its story is more broad strokes than the little details that make The Incredibles and The Iron Giant really special. But it has all the usual elements in place for a perfectly fun Disney film. And yet I enjoyed it more than that. Because superhero films that are built on earnest joy are unfortunately rare in this new golden age for the genre. And Big Hero 6 was the most pure fun I’ve had at the movies since Pacific Rim, another big action movie as goofy as it was sincere. I treasure movies like that, because they know that “fun” is not a synonym for “mindless”, that you have the most fun with any activity when you are invested in it. And both of the animated superhero films of this era have been so effortlessly fun without compromising their sincerity. I can only hope the third one comes out in less than ten years.
Monsters University: The problem of perfectly fine
“Monsters University” is perfectly fine for what it is. It wants to be a cheerful backstory of a couple of Pixar’s most beloved characters. It is. It wants to feature hijinks and drama without putting too much at stake. It does. Its aims to entertain, It succeeds.
But the film left me feeling unfulfilled. There is nothing at all wrong with simply entertaining. But saying “It’s just entertainment” can also be a copout for a film that could have been significantly more entertaining that it actually is. And that was the case with Monsters University.
The moment Mike stepped onto the Monsters University campus, I started smiling. Here was another opportunity for Pixar to showcase its immense visual creativity. And what a goofy and delightful concept: a college film among monsters. Even with the family film restrictions to keep it from being a full sendup of the Animal House genre, there was so much potential here. And the first half of the film realizes it. And then the plot takes over.
And then the film is… perfectly fine.
There’s nothing at all wrong with ignoring any sort of a collegiate narrative for the bulk of the film, eschewing it in favor of a predictable sports-film narrative. That’s perfectly fine. It just ignores what was a huge part of the appeal of this film, and a major selling point: Monsters University as a setting. The film’s remarkable promotional website is an example of the sort gleeful immersion into a universe full of interesting nooks and crannies that I was hoping for. “Monsters Inc.” relished in its setting. Even though it ended on a rather obligatory action climax (these can feel really odd in the more high-concept Pixar films; the ending of “Up” feels more incongruous upon each viewing) it was a thrilling visual experience, taking full advantage of magnificent features of Monsters Inc. itself.
“Monsters University” makes no such attempt to use its universe so creatively. The bulk of the action is tacked to one of the more tenuous set-ups in a Pixar film: Mike and Sulley are kicked out of the Scaring program, but get a chance to get back in because of a bet with the dean- if they win a fraternity and sorority scaring tournament, they can be readmitted, but if they lose they are expelled.
The entire thing feels cobbled together with string and chewing gum. It’s a series of artificial stakes with no logical connection tacked together to form a plot. And that’s… well, fine. A weak plot can be compensated for with good characters and humor and whatnot, and the film has those and it looks great, so… yeah. Fine.
But wouldn’t a story that gave a damn about itself be better?
Dean Hardscrabble is the film’s primary antagonist, and I could not for the life of me figure out why. Her motivations are non-existant. She has a vendetta against Mike and Sulley because the plot requires her to. There’s not even any inference of something deeper, like the genuinely spooky, unspoken story of what Charles Muntz has been up to all these years in “Up”. She just pops up at plot-required intervals to put the heroes down and provide obstacles. Never has a Pixar villain been so underdeveloped. The bear in “Brave” had more characterization.
But, you know, that’s not fatal to a movie. A good villain can transform a film, but a bad villain doesn’t necessarily do the same. Dean Hardscrabble serves her purpose and moves the story forward. That’s not great, not preferable, but it can still work in a movie.
And a formulaic film can be quite memorable when it’s done right. I really, really liked “Warrior”. Its script is boilerplate sports movie material, but it’s tight and splendidly acted. There’s not an ounce of filler. Nick Nolte deserved his Oscar nomination, and he gives the third best performance in the movie (cheers to Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy). It’s a formula movie that wants to transcend its material and, somehow, it kind of does. It stands out in my memory above the slew of sports movies that, superficially, resemble it at a glance. It could have been perfectly fine. It ended up being a genuinely moving, rousing experience.
By comparison, “Monsters University” (and make no mistake, this movie somehow ends up following the sports movie template to the letter in its second half) makes no such attempt to tighten its screws and trim the fat. It coasts on the pre-established charm of its characters and the knowledge that this movie will eventually turn them into friends (they begin, of course, as adversaries). And the scaring competition scenes are lively and quite entertaining. But I watched them with mild trepidation as I realized that the movie was abandoning what had made its concept seem to appealing in the first place.
The very end of the film does serve to cleanse the palate a bit, as Mike and Sulley find themselves in a dire situation that Mike must think himself out of. But even then, the film hedges its bets, far overselling the results of Mike and Sulley’s escape to one-up a villain I simply did not care about. That the ending doesn’t line up at all with the narrative (Mike and Sulley generate an atomic bomb strength scare, literally hundreds or thousands of times better than the previous record, and they still have to work their way up Monsters Inc. from the bottom?) only confirmed to me that it, like pretty much everything in the movie, was hurriedly slapped on. There was never any intention for this to be a film as interesting as its setting allowed it to be. It was only concerned with being just fine.
And when too much of a film is glaringly fine, when excellent was clearly within grasp, then it feels like less than the sum of its parts. There’s nothing outwardly bad about “Monsters University”. But watching it glide along without even trying made it, in a way, even more frustrating than “Brave”. I didn’t care for “Brave”; I thought its story misfired on so many fronts; but at least it was clearly aiming to be something memorable.
Do I recommend “Monsters University”? Yeah, I guess. Look, you’ll probably enjoy yourself. I did as I watched it. Perfectly fine movies tend to be perfectly enjoyable in the moment. But most perfectly fine movies are also perfectly forgettable. “Monsters University” is perfectly fine. It’s entertaining. But it’s completely disinterested in being great entertainment.
The Science of Spectacle
It goes without saying that a good film usually has a good story. You’ve probably heard the something along the lines of “all visual, no plot, no substance” to describe mindless summer blockbuster CGI orgies. And that’s a valid criticism. However, what about movies where visuals ARE the storytelling, and provide the substance? I have long believed that visual creativity is as important a component to movies as having a strong story. Some of my favorite movies bank on this.
Take my childhood movie (as in pretty much the only movie I watched from 7-10): “The Lion King”. It’s widely beloved, as its recent two-week reign atop the box office 17 years after its release attests. But compare it to other Disney animated classics. Its storytelling is cut-and-dry as it gets. There’s little exposition. We learn all we need to know about the characters from the archetypes they embody. They develop and change on the fly, through musical numbers and inspiring speeches.
It has none of the elegant emotional complexities and yearnings that featured so prominently in “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast”. Ariel was having an identity complex that culminated with her transforming half her body. Belle was filled with wanderlust, and gave it up to save her father before falling in love with her captor. “The Lion King” is revenge tale. The biggest emotional conflict is Simba hemming and hawing ab0ut whether not he should return home.
Addtionally, its music isn’t as strong as “The Little Mermaid’s” or “Beauty and the Beast’s”. The score is majestic, but most of the individual songs don’t quite glue themselves to your brain like “Kiss the Girl,” “Be Our Guest”, “Under the Sea”, or “Gaston”. Lyrically, Tim Rice is excellent at telling stories through music (I particularly love his work in “Jesus Christ Superstar”), but he’s not as skilled as Allen Menken and Howard Ashman at the playful, creative rhyme schemes and wordplay that I love in “Mermaid’s” and “Beauty’s” music. I also think “Be Prepared” was the weakest song in the modern Disney revival catalog until it was shoved aside by everything in “The Princess and the Frog”. But that’s for another time.
Despite all I just wrote, I love “The Lion King”. It’s easily my favorite Disney film. Why? The spectacle. “The Lion King” was an exercise in producing images that could only be achieved in animation, and Disney’s team would be damned if they didn’t blow your mind. One of the advantages of animated storytelling is that incredible images feel completely organic. We don’t think “that’s just special effects” because the whole movie is technically special effects, without any uncanny valley. Scenes like Simba’s conversation with his dead father have more impact in an animated film, because as far as we care, this is really happening.
Hans Zimmer’s score would be overwrought in most movies, but it’s completely fitting for this film. You better believe that I want this movie to end with swelling music as Simba ascends pride rock, followed with a happy ending with the title card ending the film on a drumbeat.
“The Lion King” fuses visuals with its storytelling. Its story might be kind of rote, but with visual creativity like this, any story seems fresh. Directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff weren’t compensating. They were telling this story the way it was meant to be told, with giant, bold visual strokes. They didn’t just succeed. They created a movie that represents the apex of American animation.