Sean K. Cureton

Selling Baymax

In Movie Reviews: 2014 on December 13, 2014 at 10:29 am
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Big Hero 6
Directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams
1 ½ out of 4 stars

Coming off of the run-away success of last year’s Frozen, Disney Animation Studios’ new animated feature film, Big Hero 6, is the first foray into the superhero film genre that Disney has attempted since their partnership with Pixar back in 2004 in the creation of Brad Bird’s still underutilized original film property The Incredibles. Taking inspiration from a discontinued and largely forgotten Marvel Comics series, directors Don Hall and Chris Williams have taken a big idea concept not all that dissimilar from 2012’s highly original Wreck-It Ralph, tackling the superhero comic book story tradition and transposing it into the context of a family friendly animated feature film, starring a lovable cast of characters in a colorful and brightly lit world, designed to please young and old moviegoers alike. At the center of Disney’s new animated feature franchise is Baymax, a cuddly robot programmed to provide medical support and assistance, who is reformatted and appropriated by the boy prodigy Hiro Hamada as a Transformer of sorts, capable of flight, martial arts, and stunning feats of acrobatic, crime fighting ability. While the film was initially advertised as a clever satire of the super hero genre, with the emphasis in the initial teaser trailers from a year ago centering around the action hero aspects of the film’s story, the actual movie is less about the super hero team that lends its title to the film’s poster than a centrifugal family drama, cringingly sweet and sickeningly clichéd at every turn, manipulating the audience’s sympathies to the extent of inauthentic dullness. About an hour into the film, it becomes clear that Hall and Williams have no clear idea as to where to take their potentially creative property, and instead fall back on the same old superhero tropes and children’s cartoon cutesiness of lesser animated features, Baymax an easily lovable star that they have decided to ride all the way to the bank.

Like Dreamworks’ Despicable Me, Disney’s Big Hero 6 appears to be another unimaginative foray into the easily marketable, animated feature film property, Hall and Williams providing their parent company with characters that are immediately appealing to children, while remaining inoffensive enough to compel parents to take their children to see the film and buy the officially licensed toys and movie tie-in merchandise. As is the case with the now ubiquitous Minions from Despicable Me, Baymax is a character whose innate cuteness makes up for a lack of cinematic content, Hall and Williams’ film merely a delivery system for said character, their movie more or less a commercial for a property with a built-in adaptability to star in feature films, syndicated television programming, as well as being the frontrunner for a potentially endless line of toys and action figures. Where Steve Carell’s potentially intriguing, European mastermind Gru was more often than not outshined by the cloyingly obnoxious buffoonery of his Minions in Dreamworks’ aforementioned feature film property, Baymax looms larger than the entire cast of Big Hero 6, which might be why so many moviegoers have been able to overlook the vapidity of what is otherwise an uninspired movie, Baymax’s likability alone worth the price of admission. Instead of becoming immediately disenchanted with the film’s sappy tragedy and cheaply fictionalized setting, San Fransokyo a poorly dyed and distressingly American take on the aesthetic traditions of Japanese culture, viewers of the film seem to be pleasantly satisfied, confusing the cuddliness of Baymax for authenticity of narrative. Where Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph is comparatively genuine due to its originality and depth of characters inhabiting a fully realized and citable world, its moral lessons couched in well researched allusions to video game history and culture, its universe vibrant, lively, and clever in its utilization of easily recognizable real world counterparts, Big Hero 6 seems ignorant of what makes superhero movies cool or redundant, a disappointingly bad film, not necessarily because it should be any better than it is, but because it doesn’t even possess the ambition or wherewithal to even begin to navigate the highly meta-fictional world that it attempts to inhabit.

All of this leaves Hall and Williams’ film within the realm of incredibly lucrative feature film properties with legacies that have nothing to do with the films themselves, and everything to do with the marketability of their animated stars. In the case of Hall and Williams’ property, and at the heart of the film’s marketing campaign, Big Hero 6 has been sold to its audience on the image of Baymax, with initial trailers that suggest a larger satire of the proliferation of the superhero film genre in general, but ultimately sell the film based on the humor derived from Baymax’s lovability, his inane cutesiness a stand in for thematic resonance and a creative drive. Instead of establishing a clear narrative in its build up to their film’s release, or even introducing any of the other supporting cast of heroes and villains, Hall and Williams opted to push Baymax as the incentive and siren song for the entire project, lulling potential viewers into a trance, their own imaginations and pre-conceptions of the film’s stated genre supplying as much nuance and originality to the film’s sparseness as needed. As a result, Baymax has been invited wholeheartedly into the hearts and minds of Big Hero 6’s substantial audience, the film a commercial success poised to continue to rake in money, all thanks to the successful and unilateral sale of Baymax, the film itself an afterthought, more marketing strategy than film franchise. Instead of building upon the promise of its initial premise and admittedly impressive marketing scheme, Hall and Williams’ film does little more than sell more potential film properties, each of its supporting characters and theatric settings ready made action figures and play sets, meant to support and provide definition to Baymax’s already substantial net worth.

And yet, none of this is all that surprising. Taking Dreamworks as an example and precursor for the success of Big Hero 6, why should it be all that surprising that the likability of an animated character should be the impetus for a film’s success? Despicable Me spawned a sequel based entirely off of the appeal of its supporting characters, as opposed to the merits of the film itself, with a third sequel slated for release this holiday season sans the original feature’s protagonist altogether, the Minions having run amok and taken rein of the controls altogether, a blatant and bold statement on behalf of a film studio perfectly comfortable with selling a product in the guise of a feature film. In addition, Dreamworks is also releasing a fourth Madagascar sequel in tandem with the Minions production, giving the supporting trio of devious penguins their own film, further situating the studio as pushers of an already in demand and lucrative product, the studio itself morally and creatively bankrupt. While it would be too soon to say the same of Disney, Baymax belies a certain willingness on behalf of the filmmakers to sell a product instead of producing a film, Big Hero 6 a dull exercise in the marketability of feature film properties that ultimately proved successful for the studio, which is troubling to say the least. If nothing else, moviegoers have bought Baymax, and Hall and Williams’ Big Hero 6 will be considered a monumental success by Disney Animation Studios, but at the end of the day the film is little more than a commercial, its product proven cheap and disposable after only a single viewing.

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