INTO THE NEXT STAGE: ‘Big Hero 6’ Is a Romp — But Is It Progress?

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GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTONBy GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

Over the weekend, my daughter, Akari, celebrated her 11th birthday by treating some of her school pals (and reluctantly, her brother, Jameson, and one of his buddies) to a screening of “Big Hero 6,” Disney’s latest CG animated offering.

I tried to get some reaction post-screening over lunch — what and who they liked, what they thought of the plot, characters, design and music — but all I could get was that it was “good” and “funny.” No future Roger Eberts in this group.

Neverthelss, “Big Hero 6” has been a strong box-office success for Disney since its Nov. 7 release, having grossed $34.7 million this past weekend, bringing its cumulative haul in gross domestic box-office receipts to $111.6 million. In its second weekend, it was right behind the new “Dumb and Dumber To” in box-office grosses, showing audiences are still interested in seeing what the buzz is all about regarding “BH6.”

It’s easy to see why; “BH6” is colorful, funny and fast-paced, and it has, in the robotic character of Baymax, a gentle, protective friend any kid would love to have.

This is a bit of a tangent, but Pixar put CG animation on the map back in 1995 with “Toy Story” and went on an unprecedented run of greatness, while Disney’s feature wing was more hit-and-miss with its titles during the same time. Disney finally wised up and bought Pixar in 2006. Dis didn’t just acquire Pixar’s back catalog, though. It also got Pixar’s brain trust, including John Lasseter, now in charge of Disney Feature Animation. He and his team have made a difference and it shows.

Pixar’s movies are still beloved overall, and perhaps it’s just coincidental, but it seems as though the change in ownership has shifted the momentum in CG animation from Pixar to Disney’s feature animation.

Post-acquisition, Pixar’s “Brave” and “Monsters University” were greeted with something rare: shrugs and in some cases, derision. Disney’s CG feature, however, seems to be on a commercial and critical roll with “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Planes” (a pretty blatant regurgitation of Pixar’s “Cars” but with airplanes instead of autos), “Frozen” and now, the visually stunning “Big Hero 6.”

“BH6” is also quite interesting for some other reasons not related to its box-office success, superhero tropes or hero’s journey construction.

For one thing, it makes STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — look fun and the college-age kids (not to mention protagonist Hiro Hamada and his elder brother, Tadashi) seem like cool kids, not outcasts, weirdos or nerds. One might argue that in recent years, the “Iron Man” movies and the Tony Stark character have already made science and scientists cool — but in “Big Hero 6,” it’s not grown-ups doing the science like in “Iron Man,” it’s young people that even younger people might want to emulate. Who knows what seeds of science this plant in the minds of youngsters?

Baymax comforts Hiro in a scene from "Big Hero 6." (Disney)

Baymax comforts Hiro in a scene from “Big Hero 6.” (Disney)

Those “kids” who later in the movie use their scientific subspecialties to become superheroes are, worth noting, a multicultural mix, too. The two girl characters are GoGo Tomago (Jamie Chung) and Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), who are, respectively, Japanese and Hispanic, while the two boy characters of Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.) and Fred (T.J. Miller) are black and white, respectively. (Perhaps in the tradition of Kobe Bryant, Wasabi’s name is a Japanese noun.) Worth noting here is that Fred is literally the mascot — he’s not a student at the prestigious science academy they all attend. He’s kind of a Disney-fied stoner/slacker in the tradition of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s” Jeff Spicoli, who wears his school’s mascot getup.

Meantime, the movie’s bad guy (I won’t give away who it is) is also white; while there’s a reason why he went Darth Vader and became malevolent, isn’t it interesting that in this mainstream movie in which the two major characters who are white, one is not smart enough to be in the science academy, while the other is the evildoer? (And, speaking of Darth Vader, it’s actually an apt reference since he wore a modified samurai-style kabuto helmet that obscured his features, while this movie’s bad guy wears a “kabuki” mask to hide his — although there’s really no good reason he wears it, other than it looks badass.)

As for the brothers Hiro and Tadashi Hamada, it’s worth noting, especially as it relates to this column, that they are of Japanese ancestry and the imaginary world they inhabit is called San Fransokyo, a Japanese and Western mashup of San Francisco and Tōkyō. (That it’s an imaginary city is shown by it being Tōkyō and not Beijing!)

Speaking of which, while it’s not explicitly mentioned in the course of the movie, the Hamada brothers are also a mashup of sorts, since they are, according to Web links sent to me by my friend Vic Cook, supposed to be Hapa, in this case biracial and bicultural young men of Japanese and white backgrounds. They are in fact voiced by two actors who are Hapa, Ryan Potter (white and Japanese) as Hiro and Daniel Henney (white and Korean) as Tadashi.

But, since they’re both orphans in that grand Disney tradition, we have to fill in the blanks and figure that their father was Japanese or Japanese American and that their mother was presumably white American. Their guardian and aunt, Cass Hamada (voiced by Maya Rudolph), runs the Lucky Cat Café, would then be their late father’s sister, not their late mother’s sister. But they all three look, to my eyes, Hapa. In behavior and mannerisms, nothing about them seems particularly Japanese or Japanese American. But that leads to the question: Should there be?

Isn’t it enough, especially for an American-made movie, that they have Asian names and Asian features? I think that’s been one of the major sticking points going back decades, that Asian American and Asian characters as depicted in Hollywood movies are so often stereotyped, usually negatively, in mannerisms, professions, speech patterns and so on.

Whether the American-ness of kid named Hiro Hamada will play in Japan (where it premiered at a film festival) when it goes into normal release remains to be seen — but it certainly works here.

“Big Hero 6,” meantime, manages to have a protagonist who, while Asian American and a science whiz, is not a nerd, but, rather, adventurous, athletic, a bit rebellious, handsome and bratty, but also sincere, loyal and smart.

If that’s progress circa late 2014, then I’ll take it, gladly.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2014 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.

 

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