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I saw Big Hero 6 today, making today perhaps the first time I've seen an animated Disney movie on its opening day. I went into this movie knowing basically nothing about it. I had seen one commercial and knew it was a movie about a kid and a robot. I kept forgetting what it was called. I thought maybe it was set in Japan, since all the posters had that annoying ~Asian font~ on them. Since I tend to be kind of indifferent to recent Disney movies that don't follow the princess story formula, I didn't expect to like it very much. I was really surprised when it only took two scenes for me to get super into it. And from that second scene straight through to the end of the scene after the credits I really enjoyed it. My only thoughts upon leaving the theatre were "That movie was AWESOME!!! (And don't tell anyone but it made me cry a little bit.)" So I hope it is clear that I liked the movie a lot and do recommend it!

Having said that, I've been thinking about it for a few hours now and here are some thoughts I have had.

· Probably the best thing about this movie, and the thing I'm sure every review is going to mention, is the diversity of the cast. According to that article, the protagonist and his brother are biracial, but I didn't see anything in the movie itself that would indicate they aren't full Japanese. (They're being raised by their white aunt, but she could have married into the family, or she could be a family friend they just refer to as "aunt" ...) So right away, that's two non-white characters in a non-traditional family. We then meet the four other humans in the titular six, and only one of them is white. ON TOP OF THAT, two of those characters are young women who are shown to be very enthusiastically into science. ON TOP OF THAT, one of the women tells someone to "Woman up!" - TWICE - and it is treated like an everyday thing someone might say, and that is the last thing I would have ever expected from this movie ever.

Ever since I started caring about issues of representation in media, I have felt that Disney was taking a baby step approach to them. Like, early '90s - "Our first active and opinionated female character went over well, might as well make some more!" 1998 - "Maybe we can have a woman defeat the villain now? Do you think that would be okay?" 2009 - "A black princess? Do you think the world is ready for that?" And meanwhile everyone is like "DISNEY, it is the twenty-first century, hurry up pleeeeease, this is getting embarrassing!" With Frozen and its TWO!!!! female protagonists followed immediately by Big Hero 6 and its diverse cast, I am starting to feel like maybe Disney is easing out of the baby steps and starting to take longer strides. This makes me very happy and I hope the creators of these movies can feel encouraged by what they've accomplished while at the same time KEEP MOVING FORWARD, to borrow a Walt Disney quote that was featured in 2007's Meet the Robinsons, which had a huge cast but only one character who wasn't white.

Unfortunately, Big Hero 6 isn't perfect. Everyone who isn't Hiro, Tadashi or Baymax really only has one character trait. So on one hand it's "Yay! A diverse cast!" and on the other hand it's "But ... most of them lack an actual personality ..." I also would be happier if GoGo, Wasabi and Honey Lemon had actual names. I would have loved if the creators had put in the tiny amount of extra effort needed to get this movie to pass the Bechdel Test, and I would have loved if it had avoided becoming the 4,302,256th movie to kill off a female character for the sole purpose of giving a male character backstory and motivation.

Baby steps.

· I don't watch many action movies or many superhero movies, but I imagine Big Hero 6's story is fairly paint-by-numbers. It's not the Disney formula, but it's still a formula. I think it was a successful use of the formula, but it would have been cool to see them break out of it a bit ...

(Do you like how I say "I'm indifferent to Disney movies that don't follow the formula" but also "I want them to break out of the formula"? I AM A WOMAN OF MANY MYSTERIES)

· This movie is set in a city called San Fransokyo, a combination of San Francisco and Tokyo about whose history or location in the world the movie has absolutely nothing to say. I am happy to say that I personally didn't feel the ~an American company makes a movie about Japan~ vibe even a tenth as much as I expected to, although I haven't read many other reactions to this yet and will be interested to do so. I liked that the characters were shown eating a mix of American and Japanese food, I liked that (as far as I could tell) all of the Japanese writing in the background was accurate and something you would be likely to see on a sign, I liked the koinobori-shaped wind turbine things, I liked that the police station had the same architectural style as Tokyo Station and several other older buildings I saw in Japan, I liked that the funeral scene seemed to include elements from both cultures, I liked the area Hiro quickly ran through that looked like it might have been based off a Japanese shopping arcade. (Although since everything I learned from San Francisco I learned from Full House, if any of these are things that actually exist in San Francisco I am completely oblivious!) I am confused as to what language we are supposed to think the characters were speaking? There were signs that were only in English and signs that were only in Japanese and signs that were both, but there was no spoken Japanese in the movie at all. Was this a "this movie is in English and the characters are speaking English" thing or a "this movie is in English but really the characters are speaking Japanese" thing, I really have no idea. Anyway, this setting is half-based on my favourite city in the world, and I went in ready to criticize every part of it, but in the end I kind of loved it. But I'm writing that before hearing the opinion of anyone who lives in either of those cities.

· So even though everyone in this movie says Hiro's name with an English "r," including Hiro himself, Honey Lemon consistently says it with a Japanese "r," and I have no idea why they had her do that or how it's supposed to fit into the setting of the movie, but it had me cracking up so bad because I am a Japanese major and I have met so many people who do that. Like, not that exact thing, but trying to be more Japanese than the Japanese people they are hanging out with, calling them by their Japanese names even when they have English names that they much prefer ... I really have no idea how this fits into the context of the movie but I was amused.

· I was very surprised to learn that "Immortals" - which I think was the only song in the movie? or one of two? well clearly it was the only one that caught my attention - was performed by Fall Out Boy. I only know two of their other songs, but lyrically neither of them are at all Disney-appropriate, so how did that collaboration even come about?! I think I kind of love this one though ... perhaps in the same way as I love "I'm Still Here," in that it's a super generic song that I would be indifferent to except for the context in which I first heard it ...

· There is one really emotional scene in which the music grows louder and louder until you can't hear any of the other sounds in the scene and I loved that so much. I really like this trick but I don't see it used very often. I think the last time I saw a movie that used it was Order of the Phoenix, where I didn't think it was successful. Kind of cool to see a Disney movie use it to awesome effect.

· There is a short before this movie called "Feast" that frustrated me a great deal. It was the same boy meets girl-boy loses girl-boy gets girl story that was used in Pixar's "The Blue Umbrella" and Disney's "Paperman." So out of the four recent shorts I've seen, "Get a Horse!" is the only one with its own story? I genuinely feel irritated that in order to watch a movie in which Disney tries to do some new and progressive-for-them things, I first had to watch a short that was same old saaaame oooooold. Disney, you do realize that your own company used to produce a ton of shorts every year and they had a variety of different stories, right?? What made this even more frustrating for me was that "Feast"'s visual style was rather more unique than Big Hero 6's. Which brings me to my last and nerdiest point:

· In my favourite movie reviewer's review of Big Hero 6, he writes:

[T]he film as a whole can only be thought of as a failure of visual imagination. [...] It’s fun, sure, and the colors are bright and eye-catching, especially once Big Hero 6 forms. But this is Disney, the company that once spent entire decades of its existence trying to push the medium forward. For it to produce a movie that’s this... normal looking is heartbreaking.

I agree so, so, so much. I have been thinking this exact same thing at least since Frozen was released, perhaps earlier. Maybe this isn't the sort of thing you notice if you don't spend large chunks of your time reading about animation history, but the history of Disney animation is filled with technological and artistic innovation. Sound, colour, the multiplane camera, Fantasound, CAPS, Deep Canvas. Making animated films longer, making them musicals. Figuring out how to animate a believable human body. I once took a film class for which my final project was designing the syllabus for a hypothetical class that only looked at innovation in Disney animation. The fact that Disney's CGI-era films are, so far, visually indistinguishable from the CGI films of other studios is beyond frustrating to me. I wrote about this when Frozen came out, but it is also frustrating to me that Disney's CGI films are visually indistinguishable from each other. Each of the Renaissance films and many of the Walt era films have something special about them, some style that sets them apart from the other films in the canon. You couldn't pick up Hercules and drop him into Mulan without it looking completely bizarre, simply because the visual styles of those movies - released in consecutive years - are so different. "Hate" is a strong word, but I hate that Rapunzel, Elsa and Hiro are so much a part of the same aesthetic that they could be put in a scene together without any changes necessary.

(Fair warning that this next part might not be as relevant to the above as I think it is.)

I might not feel quite so strongly about this except that this past summer I rewatched (almost) all of the package films. The six package films come from the time of the Second World War, when Disney didn't have much money or many resources, so they created these films that could be sent to theatres as individual shorts or as full-length "packages." No one is going to mistake them for movies that were made with a lot of money or a lot of love, but what really struck me when watching them this time was how creative and varied a lot of the animation is. This is animation from a studio that was always trying new things, even when it was broke. A hypothetical someone who only knew Disney through the package films would be unlikely to think that that same studio was now in the business of putting out films that all looked alike.

And rewatching a couple of the Renaissance films this week, on top of their individual styles, I was struck by all the little moments where - I have absolutely no idea how to say what I mean here, but - all the little moments where the animation is used to portray something that isn't there, or where it does something that can only be done in animation, or where it's used in a way that's just a little bit more artistic or creative. I watched The Hunchback of Notre Dame for the first time in years, and it's full of them! Clopin's movements echoing the archdeacon's movements, a statue's eyes flying open in a flash of lightning, the way we first see Quasimodo as a puppet, the way the camera travels miles within the same shot. I watched "Hellfire" like six times in a row just because how great are those fire effects - Esmeralda in the fire, Frollo being pulled into the fire - and those hooded apparitions and all the gathering shadows. All these moments where the creators took advantage of the fact that their movie was animated and used that to push it one step further. To be fair, I haven't watched any of Disney's CGI movies even half as many times as I've seen any of the Renaissance movies, so maybe I just need to watch them again to find these little moments ... but off the top of my head, there really aren't many. Frozen and Big Hero 6 are well animated and gorgeous but I wish they had received that extra little "Hey, let's do something more with the animation!" that so many of their predecessors did.

I criticize because I love. I really did enjoy Big Hero 6 and I hope it's successful. I think there are a lot of good things happening in it. But I look forward to Disney's future films in the hopes that they can always keep moving forward, both in terms of social issues as well as in terms of their art.

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arisha

July 2015

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