Science has been making a notable name for itself in pop culture recently. As the celebrity statuses of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and tech icon Elon Musk continue permeating mainstream media, massively popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory and movies like the upcoming Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything also help present the pursuit of knowledge as something not just valuable, but actually cool.
Disney is following suit with the release of Big Hero 6, a hip and heartfelt take on the superhero saga that prioritizes education and intelligence while exploring deeper themes of loss, grief, justice and family. Its eponymous team of precocious vigilantes doesn’t fit the typical comic-book archetype, but their undeniably exciting talent and enthusiasm, along with the movie’s own dazzling visual effects, make for a refreshingly entertaining romp through some of life’s most serious lessons. Of course, the lovable presence of inflatable, robotic nurse Baymax certainly helps the medicine go down.
Big Hero 6 directors Don Hall (Winnie the Pooh) and Chris Williams (Bolt), along with producer Roy Conli (Tangled), joined actors Scott Adsit (30 Rock), Ryan Potter (Supah Ninjas), T.J. Miller (Silicon Valley), Damon Wayans Jr. (Happy Endings), Jamie Chung (Once Upon a Time) and Genesis Rodriguez (Identity Thief) for roundtable interviews at the Disney Animation Studios in Burbank, Calif. Oct. 17 to discuss their vision for a children’s Marvel movie that bridges the ultimate gap between silly and smart. Like most scientific revelations, however, what they ended up creating resembles little of its source material and far more than was originally imagined.
Implementing their own scientific method of sorts, the filmmakers were more than prepared for their project to undergo a sweeping evolution; in fact, they expected it.
“There’s no magic formula other than our process, [which] allows us a lot of opportunity for trial and error,” Hall began.
Williams went further, explaining why the creative practices applied throughout each project enables Disney’s animation team to explore a variety of options and learn from each one.
“We have a system where you don’t have to get it right the first time. It allows you to take on complex storylines and complex emotional storylines and … to experiment and try things and question your assumptions and to build a version of the movie and then take stock,” he began. “And I think that’s one of the things that really makes the Pixar films and now the Disney films as solid as they are.”
The director went on to emphasize the importance of flexibility and avoiding getting too attached to one specific idea.
“We know when we make that first screening, which was three years ago, we’re not making the movie. We’re just making a platform from which to launch, and you build a higher and higher vantage point along the way. It’s not until the end you make the movie, so you have all this time to screw up and get things wrong, and get things right,” Williams continued. “No matter what story you think you’re going to tell when you start out, it’s going to be something else by the end.”
For the cast, their lack of knowledge regarding the film’s artistic direction, as well as the strange freedom of performing alone in a voiceover booth, kept focus sharply on the story. Miller, who plays the gang’s goofy fanboy, Fred, gushed about his reaction to the unexpected emotional effect of working on Big Hero 6.
“It’s got so much heart. I know that’s what everybody says in Hollywood and that sounds so weird to me, but it does,” the comedian confessed. “Disney has a heart, and it’s beating strongly in this — that’s a cardiovascular metaphor [laughs]. It has some really sad stuff, but it’s mixed so well with the comedy and the action and the storyline, and the Marvel superheroness of it.”
Big Hero 6 may take its inspiration from a Marvel comic series of the same name, but the similarities end virtually there. While the plot showcases abundant creative liberty, the film does pay aesthetic homage to the original story’s Japanese roots — remarkably so with its urban mashup setting of San Fransokyo, a spectacularly original and breathtaking urban metropolis. Perhaps most profoundly, Big Hero 6 also maintains deliberate narrative allegiance to its predecessor by including familiar characters from the comic, all of whom represent a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Co-star Chung, as no-nonsense adrenaline junkie GoGo, applauded Big Hero 6 for embracing realistic examples of modern society.
“It’s such a relief, not having to deal with the race issues,” the actress began, specifically citing protagonist Hiro Hamada and his home life as a prime example of Big Hero 6’s progressive outlook. “Family is family. [The film] breaks down that stereotype of what a family is, and it’s the contemporary, unconventional idea of what makes a family. There’s a lot of different things addressed in this film that I really support.”
While wunderkind Hiro and his equally gifted friends have a blast using their laboratory skills to reinvent themselves as the Big Hero 6, it’s a crushing tragedy that sends their mission surging into serious territory no super-powered gadget could reach on its own.
When asked if they’d ever considered rewriting or even omitting the devastating event entirely, the filmmakers expressed firm confidence in their decision to not only include it, but confront it head on. According to Williams, it’s an integral part of the story that also points to Disney’s legacy of wrenching but necessary drama – even in otherwise lighthearted children’s movies.
“At one point we wondered if we’d veered too far away from taking on the loss directly, and that [the tragedy] had almost become incidental. It needed to be critical to the story, and so we steered back,” he confessed. “We were never afraid of taking on deep emotion, and difficult subject matter. It’s part of the Disney history, going all the way back to Bambi and Dumbo.”
Conli discussed how his role as a producer gives him a unique objectivity that the directors, writers and animators aren’t able to have. His more administrative responsibilities allow him to watch everyone else navigate the seemingly infinite artistic details that comprise a Disney-caliber feature. Witnessing their process end successfully time and time again, Conli explained, eliminated any possible concern that Big Hero 6 wouldn’t rise to the challenge.
“This team is so mature now. They’ve gone through Tangled, they’ve gone through Wreck-It-Ralph, they’ve gone through Frozen. When you have a team this experienced and who work so well together, I was never worried,” he confirmed. “One of the things I love about being a producer is I love to see artists get together and wrangle it, and try to figure out how to make it work. And I generally just sit back and let them do that.”
The parallels between the tech-savvy prodigies in Big Hero 6 and the people who brought them to life make for some poetic harmony the film’s cast and crew are hoping is contagious. Genesis Rodriguez, who voices girly chemistry expert Honey Lemon, was but one cast member to express excitement for Big Hero 6’s potential influence on its target youngsters.
“Hopefully, with this movie a lot of little boys and little girls can dream of changing the world by becoming scientists or chemists. You don’t hear little kids saying that [anymore], even just simple things like, ‘I want to be a fireman.’ They want to be famous,” Rodriguez lamented. “With this movie, we can change kids’ [minds] just a little bit. Anyone can be a superhero if you just prepare yourself and educate yourself.”
The whiz kids in Big Hero 6 may have an awful lot of nifty toys, but what sets these characters apart is their ability to build, not buy. Social media and reality television are certainly contributing to our narcissistic demise, but Disney and Marvel’s undeniable hot streak has proven what many are already beginning to suspect. As technology only continues advancing, it’s the geeks who shall inherit the earth.
But, at least in the case of Big Hero 6, they have to conquer the box office first.