The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 130 | On Disney’s recently-announced Big Hero 6 animated feature film

Leaving Proof 130 | On Disney’s recently-announced Big Hero 6 animated feature film
Published on Saturday, June 30, 2012 by

If you asked me which Marvel Comics property would be likely to headline a Walt Disney Animation Studios feature film, I don’t know if obscure Japan-based superhero team Big Hero 6 would even cross my mind. My reaction to the concept of the team when I first learned about its existence back in the late 1990s was to casually dismiss it as an attempt to cash-in on the popularity of the manga aesthetic and the “anything goes” sensibility associated with comics and animation from Japan.

Big Hero 6: A sleeper hit in the making?

Well, the studio has confirmed in an Entertainment Weekly report that they are, in fact, currently at work on a Big Hero 6 animated feature film. It’s not nearly the risky proposition that it sounds like on first blush: New Line Cinema took a chance on the film adaptation of Marvel Comics’ Blade and the character’s relative obscurity allowed the filmmakers to streamline the property for film—going so far as changing the character’s nationality from British to American—with little fan furor. The result was a visually-stylish, R-rated production that made back its modest (by Hollywood standards) $45 million budget within three weeks of its domestic release in the late summer of 1998, eventually raking in over $131 million worldwide. More significantly, Blade‘s commercial success helped pave the way for even bigger Marvel superhero live-action film adaptations. A Big Hero 6 animated feature film would similarly enjoy sensibly lowered commercial pressures and expectations, afford the filmmakers creative flexibility while avoiding any potential long-term negative impact on an established brand, and it could serve as a test case for Marvel and Disney’s animated projects going forward.

The “Marvel Anime” collaboration between Marvel Comics and MADHOUSE, Inc. received mixed reviews

While the majority of recently released live-action feature films featuring Marvel characters have been quite successful at the box-office and, with the occasional exceptions, have been reasonably well-received by fans and critics, Marvel’s attempts at animated straight-to-DVD features and TV series haven’t fared so well. Marvel just hasn’t had the kind of visually distinct, critic-beloved, breakthrough hit like DC had in the Bruce Timm-developed Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League Unlimited or a massively popular TV phenomenon like the Glen Murakami-produced Teen Titans. Even its Marvel Anime collaboration with Japanese animation giant MADHOUSE, Inc., despite being one the best-looking of Marvel’s recent animation crop, has been met, at best, with mixed reactions by cartoon fans.

The Glen Murakami-produced “Teen Titans” series was wildly popular among younger viewers.

Will Disney’s Big Hero 6 project be able to change Marvel’s animation fortunes? Having Disney’s unassailable technical expertise, years of top-flight experience, and rock-solid reputation in their corner certainly can’t hurt. One of the criticisms I occasionally hear when discussing Marvel’s recent animated offerings with animation fans and professionals is that they just don’t look as good as DC’s (with the possible exception of the MADHOUSE, Inc. material). There’s no accounting for taste, of course, but I think credible arguments can be made that, say, the “fauxnime” of 2006’s Fantastic Four: World’s Greatest Heroes holds less appeal compared to the anime-influenced look and feel of Teen Titans, which in my opinion is one of the most successful Western shows in terms of appropriating quirks generally associated with Japanese animation without looking like it’s “trying too hard.” And the direct-to-DVD feature films produced by MLG Productions (the Marvel/Lionsgate subsidiary in charge of producing Marvel’s animated features) suffer from what I feel is poorly considered art direction that is caught between aping (intentionally or not) the distinctive and popular “Timmverse” look and crafting an aesthetic closer to that found in the comics. This isn’t to say that Marvel’s recent forays into animation have been egregiously bad—2000’s X-Men: Evolution and 2008’s Spectacular Spider-Man in my opinion compare quite favorably to the less heralded seasons of Batman: The Animated Series and Teen Titans—but I think the perception that their animated projects aren’t as good as those featuring DC’s characters, or even those involving non-comics associated IPs such as Avatar: The Last Airbender or Ben 10, is pervasive in the fan community.

Disney/Pixar’s “The Incredibles” showed that an animated superhero feature film featuring an unknown IP can achieve, and even surpass, the same levels of critical and commercial success as its live-action counterparts.

Marvel’s struggles in achieving crossover success in animation hasn’t been for lack of effort or talent. Respected animation industry veterans such as Greg Weisman (of Gargoyles fame) and Kevin Altieri (who served as a director on shows like The Real Ghostbusters and Batman: The Animated Series) have contributed to Marvel’s slew of animated series, and Marvel has even gone on to hire Batman: The Animated Series writer Paul Dini to head the production of Ultimate Spider-Man. But by some strange confluence of factors, the not-inconsiderable resources Marvel puts into its animated projects haven’t produced the kind of definitive hit most observers expect from a company with such strong IPs in its stable.

I can only welcome the news of Disney’s Big Hero 6 project of course, as I’m firmly in the camp that believes that animation is still a better forum for the full-motion superhero adaptation than live-action film. The Avengers and Iron Man were fun, but to me, the high-water mark for superhero films is still the one set by Disney/Pixar’s The Incredibles. A lot of the things that look good on the comic page, such as certain character designs and the portrayal of particular superpowers, can be difficult to translate well to live-action: the realism inherent in live-action brings with it the risk of exposing the absurdity implicit in superhero design and action. Animation, when done well, neatly sidesteps that issue.

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7 Responses
    • I don’t know Hero 6 but I’ll give it a try. I do hope that Marvel finally finds the animation magic bullet that DC has been firing away for years.

      I also loved The Incredibles and hope that they come back soon. I want a sequel. 

      • It’s hard to put a finger on what exactly it is that Marvel is doing wrong with its animated projects. A decade ago, I would have said the lack of a strong unifying aesthetic and directorial style is what ails Marvel, but the success of Teen Titans and Batman: The Brave and the Bold pretty much shoots holes in that theory (although it is true that Teen Titans producer Glen Murakami and Batman: The Brave and the Bold showrunner James Tucker both honed their craft under DCAU godfather Bruce Timm before getting their own shows).     

        It sounds like too pat a conclusion, but maybe Marvel just hasn’t found the right combination of talent and IP to get that elusive hit.

        •  DC can experiment with the art style or the narrative style and it just works. They can do dark or funny and it just works.

          I have yet to figure out why Marvel has never had that success. None of the Spider-Men cartoons or X-Men cartoons have been as revered as any of the Batman cartoons since Bruce Timm. 

          I did enjoy X-Men: Evolution. The story telling was good overall. I liked the long legged looks of the visual style. I wish they would put the last season out on DVD. Sadly, it is about the only Marvel animated series on my shelf.

          I hope Big Hero 6 is finally going to be the breakthrough hit that they need.

          Has either company had an animated feature film in theaters since Mask of the Phantasm?

          • Yeah, X-Men: Evolution seemed like it was picking up young fans whilst also getting older fans of the comics engaged. I didn’t really follow it week to week back when it originally aired, but what I saw of it I generally enjoyed. I found the art style/art direction to be well done: it “animated well,” but also looked good in static shots.

            I think what ultimately torpedoed it was that it was the third extant “alternative” take on the property out at the time of its debut… the first X-Men film and the Ultimate X-Men comic were really being pushed aggressively around the time the show started airing, and I think it might have fallen by the wayside in terms of promotion and licensing support.

            As for an animated superhero film from DC or Marvel being in theaters… you know, I think you’re correct in that Batman: Mask of the Phantasm might have been the last one to get wide release. As fondly remembered as that film was, though, it was a bit of a flop: It didn’t make back its $6 million budget in the 48 days it was in domestic release (its total domestic gross was $5.6 million) and it was never authorized for international theater release. Those numbers probably scared US studios off the whole idea of doing animated superhero feature films. 

            I do think that the market has changed in the 19 years since Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Today’s theater-goers are—if the box-office success of recent Pixar, Studio Ghibli, Disney, and Dreamworks animated offerings are any indication—more willing to shell out money to watch major animated feature films in theaters and with superhero films like The Avengers making some mad bank, I think the time is right for a major animation house to try its hand at the animated superhero feature film again.

            •  Phantasm came out while Batman was still on Saturday morning cartoons every week. Why pay for it when you can watch it for free? Only hard core animated Bat fans checked it out. I do wonder how its DVD sales have held up compared to non theatrical release DC properties. If the DVD sales are factored in it is possible that it is quite successful. Many executives seem to consider DVD sales as a significant part of the equation with some movies.

              The time does seem ripe for another animated movie in theaters. Perhaps to kick off a cartoon series.

              Speaking of DVDs, I wonder how DVD distribution differences between DC and Marvel effect the fandom’s reaction to various properties. I can pick up full season sets of older DC properties but I’m still yet to pick up the last season of X-Men Evolution?

            • BigIV wrote:
              Phantasm came out while Batman was still on Saturday morning cartoons every week. Why pay for it when you can watch it for free? Only hard core animated Bat fans checked it out.

              True.

              In retrospect, that was a headscratching release strategy for the film… one that had been tried before and failed in startlingly similar fashion: 1986’s Transformers: The Movie had a similar budget ($6 million) and had only a slightly higher total box-office gross ($5.8 million).

    • […] everything else, lets flash back to my comments from two-and-a-half years ago, when the story broke that Disney would be producing an animated feature film based on […]

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