Big Hero 6: Disney’s Most Grown-Up Cartoon Yet?
Disney is currently revving up its publicity engine ahead of the 2015 release of ‘Big Hero 6’, the first new animated film from Walt Disney Animation Studios since the box-office busting ‘Frozen’. However, if you’re expecting another sweet fantasy tale, with instantly memorable songs, then you may be in for a shock.
Dealing with loss, grief, and puberty, and with a soundtrack from emo-rockers Fallout Boy, ‘Big Hero 6’ could be Disney’s most grown-up animated feature, and therefore one of its riskiest, yet.
It’s the first collaboration between Walt Disney Animation Studios and Marvel since Disney snapped up the comics firm back in 2009 for a whopping £2.8bn, with Marvel involved in the process every step of the way.
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Based on an obscure 1998 series that only hardcore comic fans had ever heard of, ‘Big Hero 6’ exists in a separate world to the live action cinematic universe of ‘The Avengers’, ‘Iron Man’ et al, to save any confusion for audiences, and from early footage it looks like no other animated film that’s come from the “House of Mouse” before.
While Marvel primarily pitches its comic characters to a mid-to-late teenage audience, the animation team that brought us ‘Frozen’ and ‘Tangled’ often skews towards a much younger age bracket, but where will ‘Big Hero 6’ fit on that spectrum?
Somewhere in-between is the short answer.
"I think in this film, you just have a really rich soup of ideas,” explains producer Roy Conli to Yahoo. "What works great is that it works for kids really well and it works for adults extremely well, it’s kind of cool that way."
It’s not dark per se, early footage from the film is every bit as playful and joyous as recent offerings ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ and the aforementioned ‘Snow Queen’ adaptation ‘Frozen’, it’s just a bit more complex to set up and explain, and it deals with some heavy themes.
Warning, potential spoilers ahead.
The story revolves around a 14-year-old robotics prodigy named Hiro who lives in the fictional city San Fransokyo. It’s a mash-up of San Francisco and Tokyo that exists in the future, or if you prefer, an alternate reality to our own.
Hiro’s inspirational brother Tadashi helps him to gain admission into San Fransokyo’s Institute of Technology, and in one of the scenes we saw from early on in the film, Hiro’s “audition” for the elite educational facility sees the child genius demonstrating his technical prowess using Microbots, a tiny army of connecting robots that he designed.
It’s a dazzling sequence that demonstrates visual inventiveness hitherto unseen from Disney. The futuristic-setting, an area of fantasy rarely explored by Disney (we don’t mention ‘Treasure Planet’ round these parts), has given the animators free rein to go as wild as they like.
The sequence however ends with tragedy for Hiro, with his brother dying in what seems to be a terrible accident. Hiro then, deprived of his older brother (they’re both orphans, raised by their aunt) is plunged into a pit of despair.
Disney films are no stranger to grief, after all, in ‘Frozen’ Anna and Elsa lose their parents early on, but their mourning is dealt with in a swift montage scene. Pixar’s ‘Up’ deftly conveyed the death of a loved one in its memorable opening sequence, but Hiro’s grief in ‘Big Hero 6’ feels like it’s confronted head on.
Luckily for Hiro, his brother (also a robotics genius) left behind Baymax, a robotic “Healthcare Companion” with an inflatable vinyl body stretched over a carbon fibre frame. After Hiro awakens the blank-faced, squishy-bodied robot, his new companion scans him for health problems, noting “vocal fluctuations”, diagnosing the boy with “puberty”. Watch the clip below.
We asked producer Roy Conli whether he felt like the film was designed to play to an older audience, and while he didn’t outright admit it, he did concede that it dealt with some pretty deep human issues.
"I think that opposed to “more mature” I would just say it’s very rich in terms of theme.”
"As you’re building a film, you’re always looking for “theme”, and in this particular one, there were a lot of themes that we were balancing and juggling. And what was so great about this film, was that as it evolved, the themes didn’t disappear, there just became themes that were more important than others.”
After Hiro and Baymax discover that a nefarious Kibuki-masked villain has stolen the Microbots, and that his brother’s death wasn’t an accident after all, they set about creating the Big Hero 6 superhero team, joining forces with his brother Tadashi’s Institute of Technology classmates - GoGo Tomago, Wasabi, Honey Lemon, and Fred.
Each member has their own unique superpowers, including Baymax, who gets a tough makeover in order to make him more durable in combat, but he remains the cute inflatable robot, that’s sure to sell out at Disney stores everywhere, underneath.
One thing that Disney seems to have learned from its stablemates at Pixar in ‘Big Hero 6’ is that you should never talk down to children. All you need to help sell mature themes to a younger audience is a cute face to - paraphrasing another Disney classic here - help the bitter medicine go down.
"I was afraid at first when we first showed it that some of the scenes would be too scary for kids and what’s amazing is that, because you have Baymax in there, the kids just go on the ride with you.”
‘Big Hero 6’ is getting a staggered global release – the States will get in November, while we have to wait until January 2015 - but from what we’ve seen so far, Disney’s first animated Marvel film looks set a big hit with all ages, regardless of its release date.
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Image credit: Disney