In today’s Leaving Proof: Disney’s Big Hero 6 is a fun and uncommonly touching superhero movie, but it has us asking questions about attribution and design authorship.
With the impending retail release of the Big Hero 6 DVD/Blu-ray (it drops on February 24), now is probably as good a time as any for a discussion of the animated feature film, its comic book roots, and the issue of authorship the transition from one medium to another has raised.
Before 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 Marvel’s Big Hero 6 superhero team, its first major foray into Marvel Comics-based animation since acquiring the publisher in 2010:
[An animated feature film starring the obscure Big Hero 6 is] 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.
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.
So how was the actual film? Quite good, actually, despite Big Hero 6 tracing the same superhero origin story template everybody is familiar with by now. (Somebody please come up with something besides the “with great power comes great responsibility” set-up.) It’s billed as a Disney release straight-up, but it packs the kind of pathos one would expect from a Pixar production, although there’s no real surprise there since Pixar chief John Lasseter is the film’s executive producer and two of the film’s screenwriters have previously worked on Pixar projects. The all-ages film isn’t afraid to take its young (and young-at-heart) audience to some relatively dark places. It opens with adolescent protagonist Hiro Hamada involved in a robot-battle gambling scam (he actually comes off like he might have the beginnings of a gambling problem) and the subsequent death of a loved one because of the actions of a supervillain is a pivotal plot event.
The screenplay handles Hiro’s grief and desire for revenge with uncommon nuance and maturity, not just for children’s entertainment, but for action-oriented cinema fare in general. And while most superhero films only pay lip service to the idea of violence as a last resort in resolving conflict, Big Hero 6 actually sticks the landing. Sure, the third act is just another interminable drawn-out action sequence that will test the attention spans of children and their parents alike, but whatever real violence the heroes inflict is against non-sentient robots or environmental hazards: The heroes’ focus is on saving lives, not punching out bad guys—not that these things are mutually exclusive, mind you, but the film’s plot allows for a neat division between the two.
Big Hero 6 is still a superhero origin movie, though, and one targeted at younger demos at that. Character development is largely limited to Hiro and his robot Baymax and the film’s “Scooby-Doo”-style reveal of the main villain’s secret identity isn’t so much telegraphed as it is PM’ed and redundantly emailed: Anyone (or at least any viewer above the age of twelve) paying the least bit of attention won’t need more than a couple of guesses to figure out who the big bad is, which undermines the narrative tension to some degree.
For the long-time comics fan and observer, however, what might be the most interesting aspect of the film is its explicit branding as “Disney’s Big Hero 6,” when previous films distributed by Walt Disney Motion Pictures and TV shows produced by ABC Entertainment (a Disney subsidiary) based on Marvel Comics properties have been allowed to retain their Marvel branding in official promotional materials (e.g., Marvel’s The Avengers, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, Marvel’s Agent Carter, etc.).
We don’t have to read too much into it—it’s called “Disney’s Big Hero 6” because it’s produced directly by Walt Disney’s animation division, and not the Marvel Studios arm of its Marvel Entertainment branch. Still, it’s a reminder of who ultimately calls the shots and holds the purse strings in this new-ish world where The House of Mouse holds dominion over comics’ House of Ideas.
The real issue the branding circumstantially raises is one of authorship. The film credits Man of Action Studios as the firm behind the creation of the Big Hero 6 characters, and this is a fair and just attribution by any conventional definition of character creation. Man of Action Studios co-founders Steven T. Seagle and Duncan Rouleau did come up with the idea and the designs of the original Big Hero 6 characters for use in Alpha Flight (Vol. 2) #17 way back in the fall of 1998, although due to scheduling changes, the characters actually debuted in print two months earlier in Sunfire & Big Hero 6 #1 written by Scott Lobdell with art by Gus Vasquez and Bud LaRosa.
There’s no getting around it: It is rather quite striking how different some of the Big Hero 6 characters look when comparing the original comics designs and the film designs. While the characters Hiro and GoGo have made the transition from print to film with fairly modest design changes, based on looks alone, the film version of the armored Baymax actually looks to be inspired more by artist David Nakayama’s reworking of the character for the 2008 Big Hero 6 miniseries written by Chris Claremont than Seagle and Rouleau’s outwardly reptilian robot (note, however, that Rouleau’s original 1998 design sketch for Baymax was much, much more mechanical in appearance, and that Nakayama’s design may have been intended to bring the character closer to this original look). Even then, the movie’s Baymax looks more like an original creation for the film than anything seen in the Big Hero 6 comics.
Original Big Hero 6 member Aiko “Honey Lemon” Miyazaki and the Nakayama/Claremont-created characters Wasabi-No-Ginger and Fredzilla have also been significantly altered for the film. The film’s “Honey Lemon” is Latina while Wasabi, a Japanese chef and expert martial artist in the 2008 comics miniseries, has been updated as an African-American engineering major with a thing for lasers. Fredzilla, an ethnic Ainu when he was introduced in the comics in 2008 as a superhero with the ability to transform into a dragon-like beast has been repurposed as a slacker of indeterminate (or “default white,” depending on one’s interpretation) ethnic extraction who wears a superpowered mascot suit. The handling of race in the adaptation and the film’s “San Fransokyo” setting present potential issues of their own, ones we’ll have to revisit and address some other time. But solely in terms of visuals, there isn’t a very strong throughline between Nakayama and Claremont’s creations and the eponymous characters that appeared in the film.
This is the sorites paradox of collective character creation and serial redesign and interpretation. Every artist and writer working with these corporate-owned characters adds and takes away from the property, to the point where it becomes impossible to say when one has actually made the transition to an all-new creation, only remotely related to the original, if at all.
Yes, in a fundamental sense, Seagle and Rouleau are the ones responsible for creating the characters that showed up on the big screen. But how much of the final product can be said to have been inspired by the work Nakayama and Claremont did with the Big Hero 6 characters? Would it be fair to say that the film’s versions of Wasabi, Fred, and Baymax are only related to their comics incarnations by nomenclature, and that they’re really the original creations of the film’s directors, writers, and visual development artists?
The only thing we can really be sure of is that we’re watching “Disney’s Big Hero 6” on the screen, not “Seagle and Rouleau’s Big Hero 6,” not “Nakayama and Claremont’s Big Hero 6,” and not even “directors Don Hall and Chris Williams’ Big Hero 6.” Make of that what you will.