Sunday, November 16, 2014

Big Hero 6 (Review)

Director(s): Don Hall & Chris Williams

Company: Disney

Year: 2014

Country: USA

We introduce to you, the most huggable robot ever!

Normally, this blog does not cover Disney films due to its primary focus being on obscure and foreign titles, but I decided to make an exception for Big Hero 6. It's not because the film is outside of Disney's comfort zone or that it offers anything out of the ordinary. It's simply a really fun and entertaining superhero flick with a lot of heart. Big Hero 6 is based upon the Marvel series of the same name, but it has far more in common with a typical Disney production than it does with the comics it is based upon.

In some ways, however, this seems to have worked in the film's favor. The comic's narrative has been streamlined to allow it to work within a 105 minute run time and much more emphasis is put on the relationship between the protagonist, Hiro Hamada, and his late bother's robot, Baymax. (There has been some debate over the film's whitewashing of two of its cast members, although Big Hero 6 remains a multi-ethnic team. It is also important to note that the comic is not without fault: having plenty of cultural stereotypes and sexualized depictions of its female characters. Both of which the film thankfully avoids.)

The Disney film is vastly different from the comic version (and that's not necessarily a bad thing). 

The movie's plot is nothing new, but it is enjoyable. Big Hero 6 is set in the fictional city of San Fransokyo, a fusion of modern-day Tokyo and San Francisco. 14 year old wiz-kid, Hiro Hamada, and his older brother, Tadashi, live at a coffee shop with their eccentric Aunt Cass. Tadashi urges Hiro to attend college. However, Hiro is more interested in participating in illegal bot fights than going to a 'nerd school' that will teach him things that he apparently already knows. All of this changes once Tadashi shows Hiro his university's lab. At the lab Hiro meets his brother's friends: GoGo Tomago, a no-nonsense, adrenaline-driven, developer of electromagnetics; Fred, the school mascot and resident comic-book expert/hippie otaku; Honey Lemon, a quirky chemistry expert; and Wasabi a heavily-built, slightly neurotic lasers expert.

Hiro is also impressed by the esteemed Professor Callaghan, and Tadahsi's invention, the robotic nurse, Baymax. Hiro manages to get accepted into the college after winning a robotics competition with his microbots, but his victory is tragically interrupted when a fire occurs at the university hall. Tadashi rushes in to save Callaghan, and is killed when the building explodes. Hiro withdraws from college and his friends, until one day he accidentally reactivates Baymax. Hiro and Baymax eventually discover that a mysterious masked man has stolen Hiro's microbots …which were supposed to have perished in the fire. Hiro is joined by his concerned friends. He then proceeds to upgrade Baymax and provides his newly formed team super-suits. But will apprehending the man in the mask really make Hiro feel better? Just who is the masked man anyway? And what would have Tadashi wanted?

Our protagonist 'nerds' before and after suiting up.

As mentioned before, the film's focus wisely sticks to the relationship between Hiro and Baymax. At the start of the film, Baymax is very naive about the world around him and tends to take things quite literally (which is frequently a source of the film's humor outside of Fred's geeky antics). For instance when Baymax accidentally scares Hiro, Hiro yells "You nearly gave me a heart attack!" Baymax then prepares his built-in defibrillators. Over the course of the movie, Baymax matures and begins to question Hiro about his quest for vengeance. The two form a relationship similar to the one Hiro had with his brother and Baymax frequently acts as Hiro's moral compass.

The supporting team characters do feel a bit shorthanded at times. It is refreshing to see that neither GoGo or Honey are pushed as Hiro's romantic interests, however. Fred actually seems to get the most screen time outside of Hiro and Baymax. This is probably to keep Big Hero 6's tone upbeat and detract from some of the heavier topics the story deals with. (Death and dealing with feelings of revenge are surprisingly common topic in family films. However, they are often presented in a way that kids can more easily swallow or are de-emphasized to avoid upsetting certain parents.) Fred even gets a bumper at the end of the film which heavily implies the possibility of a sequel.

This film is one of the most visually interesting movies Disney has put out in recent years. It definitely looks like a Disney film. However, it is also a love letter to super hero comics and Japanese culture. In many ways, it is similar to Wreck it Ralph. Just as Wreck it Ralph is a tribute to retro video games and arcades, Big Hero 6 is a homage to mecha and super sentai shows. The scenery of this film is quite gorgeous, with its mash up of San Franciscan details (such as trollies and the Painted Ladies) and a futuristic, fantasized Japan. The animation in the film features some of the slickest looking CGI animation to come out of Disney yet. The character designs, outside of Baymax, are familiar and derivative of earlier Disney films. (Let the comparisons of Honey Lemon to Rapunzel commence!) However, the costumes they wear have far more in common with anime from the 1970s-80s.

San Fransokyo. Just attempt to say it fast five times.

I'm pretty sure most of the animators on this film got at least some visual inspiration from the likes of this.

Overall, Big Hero 6 is a solid, if slightly generic, family film. It is a bit derivative of films like The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and How to Train Your Dragon. And its story is instantly familiar to anyone acquainted with superhero franchises. So is Big Hero 6 a complex, life-changing movie? No. Is it fun? Hell yeah. Even if certain aspects of the film seem a bit too familiar at times, Big Hero 6 is well-paced and so lovingly put together that its impossible not to smile while watching it. Still, one hardly needs to promote this movie. It's Disney after all. (The Youtube trailer already somehow has over 7 million views somehow!) Now if only more people would be willing watch the likes of Princess Kaguya and The Song of the Sea. Oh well, at least they aren't spending their money on the likes of  "Ice Age meets Alvin and the Chipmunks 5" this year.

It wouldn't be a tribute to super sentai shows without a cool Japanese poster.

Rating: 3.5

About the Short: Feast (director: Patrick Osborne) is a lot like Disney's 2012 short, Paperman. It blends the aesthetic look of hand-drawn animation with CGI. Feast is about the life of a Boston Terrier, Winston, who sees his life through the meals he shares with his master. Winston's way of life is later disrupted by his owner's love interest, a waitress with a knack for healthy cooking. It's a simple story, but like the feature it is attached to, Feast is well executed (and absolutely adorable).

Moral: Boston Terriers are the cutest things in existence. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Jungle Emperor Leo (1989) TV Series Review: Final Part

The Confusing Conclusion (Final Thoughts)

Is this show's idea of 'the circle of life' too hardcore?

There is a lot death and self-sacrifice in this version of Kimba. In a sense, it explores the concept of 'the circle of life' in more depth than most versions. But it eventually becomes bogged down by being overly serious and depressing. So who is to blame about the series's inconsistent quality? Osamu Tezuka possibly did contribute to a few of the problems (The original manga is somewhat sporadic and had a few bizarre plot twists), but he can't really be blamed considering that he died after the sixth episode aired. It is possible that he had some say on the direction of the later episodes, but chances are we will never know.

Rintaro was in charge of directing the remaining episodes. It's just strange that the quality of Jungle Emperor suddenly declines half way through, when Rintaro's earlier episodes seem consistent with Tezuka's vision. In fact, Rintaro had worked for years with Tezuka before directing the show and was personal friends with Tezuka. Perhaps Rintaro attempted to make the show distinctive or else 'update it' for modern audiences. (But, apparently he forgot that this the show is supposed to be Kimba the White Lion not Ginga Nagareboshi Gin!)

So is this a series that should be recommended to Kimba/Tezuka fans or even anime fans as a whole? Simply put, the show runs for too long and eventually loses steam. It tries to keep its audience emotionally engaged by raising the stakes of danger. But, over time, it just becomes taxing to watch so many animals get shot, poisoned or electrocuted. It's frustrating because Jungle Emperor 1989 has such a prestige behind it and the early episodes (especially the first six) are great. The series is not the most terrible remake ever created, but it does become terribly misguided over time. If you want to watch a modern recreation of Jungle Emperor Leo, I would recommend watching the theatrical 1997 film instead of watching this show all the way through.

"Remember Leo, a leader is neither a boss or a king."

Final Rating: 3/5

About the Dub:
Part of the reason why this show remains so obscure outside of Japan is due to its dubber's infamous hack job. Unlike the dub of the original show (which is a bit hokey but decent by '60s standards), the 1989 series's dub by Pioneer completely changes its narrative flow. Episodes two and three were completely omitted, and only episodes one through fifteen were released on tape. Pioneer apparently tired to edit 'The New Adventures of Kimba the White Lion' into something more upbeat, and just gave up after they realized the show would continue to get darker. In the process they rid the show of its charm, only to replace with it bad jokes or annoying dialogue. (In other words, the characters never shut up.) And the voice acting itself is just as awful, if not worse than the edits.

Thankfully, these terrible VHSs are long out print. Avoid them like the plague.

Jungle Emperor Leo (1989) TV Series Review: Part 3

 The Bad & the Confusing

The Pessimistic Second Half of the Series

Unfortunately for all of the praise I give this show, it is far from being perfect. From about episode 35 onwards, the series becomes obsessed with being as dark and edgy as possible which undermines much of its core meanings and values. Threats begin to show up more and more frequently and death becomes common place. This wouldn't be too big of an issue if Jungle Emperor 1989 balanced out some of its darker elements with more comic relief or signs of progression/hope, but the later episodes rarely do so. (This is something that almost all of Tezuka's manga always managed to do, despite that he had a fondness for semi-tragic and bittersweet endings.)

Jungle Emperor Leo is supposed to represent the complex relationship between humans and animals and how they must put aside their differences in order to understand each other. This is the 1989 version's main flaw. The early episodes do a decent job showing that 'not all humans are bad' and a certain number of them even featured the protagonists being saved by humans that they saw as potentially threatening. But then the humans start to become villainized a bit too much. For instance, in Episode 40, Leona's hunters return to the jungle to search for precious metals in Marody's mountain. This sets the series's final arc into motion, in which the animals proceed to battle the invaders, many of them fighting to the death...Episode 48 is not much better. Leo is tranquilized and is nearly captured by hunters, after wandering around for hours on end in a confused daze. (This could be used as a minor plot element, but stretching it out for a whole episode seems a bit excessive.)