Holding Out for a Hero

Robbie Collin reports from Tokyo on Disney’s latest creation, a huggable robot who could prove box-office gold

Published: 11th November 2014 06:03 AM  |   Last Updated: 11th November 2014 06:03 AM   |  A+A-


From the 43rd floor of the Park Hyatt hotel in downtown Tokyo, the sky looks clear enough to swim in. It was here that Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson sought comfort in one another’s company in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation — which means to film-lovers, they go hand in hand with culture-clash and jet lag. In that respect, for the launch of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 54th film, there could hardly be a less appropriate venue.

In Big Hero 6, cultures don’t clash, they compound. The film is a loose adaptation of a long-defunct Marvel Comics superhero series, but it’s Disney down to its marrow. It takes place in a mashed-up metropolis called San Fransokyo — think of a happy Blade Runner — where Telegraph Hill is topped with a seven-storey pagoda, and the steep rows of clapboard houses are lined with sakura in full blossom. There are robots and car chases and portals to alternate dimensions and flying sequences that treat skyscrapers like slalom poles. The only song is a gearing-up anthem by the Chicago pop-punk band Fall Out Boy.

Team Disney launched Big Hero 6 at the Tokyo International Film Festival last week, where it became clear that one of its characters — the living embodiment of its blend of Eastern and Western pop cultures — was destined for global stardom. He’s Baymax, an inflatable robotic nurse, and he’s Disney’s most straightforwardly adorable character since Robin Williams’s Genie in Aladdin.

In the film, Baymax’s inventor is Tadashi Hamada, an engineering student who perishes in a suspicious fire at San Fransokyo Tech one night, shortly after his younger brother Hiro is accepted into the faculty.

Heartbroken, Hiro falls into a depressive stupor, but Baymax, who’s programmed to make people feel better, draws him back out of his shell.

In reality, Baymax’s inventors are Don Hall and Chris Williams, the co-directors of Big Hero 6, who even now, with the elevated perspective that a 43rd-floor altitude brings, don’t seem fully aware of the sheer, heart-bursting adorableness of their creation.

“Our mandate was to do something nobody had ever seen before, and I was hooked right off the bat,” Hall said. “I just thought, ‘We’ve found a huggable robot’. Everything about Baymax’s character, personality and design stemmed from that.”

On a visit to a Shinto shrine, Hall noticed that the copper suzu bell above the altar seemed to be smiling at him — ‘it had such a peaceful, pleasant expression’, he says — and he realised he had found Baymax’s face.

To find his walk, the directors and their animators looked for cute movements in nature — after consulting much source footage, they decided on a toddler with a full nappy was the cutest.

In fact, the film’s Japanese publicity campaign sidelines the heroism entirely, and focuses on the relationship between boy and ‘bot. (Despite the title’s syntactic tumble, Big Hero 6 isn’t a translation as in Japan, the film is simply called Baymax.) The trailer even opens with a shot of umbrellas in the rain — a respectful nod towards the most famous sequence in My Neighbour Totoro, in which the creature stands with Satsuki and Mei at a bus stop during a downpour.

Hall and Williams each talk about their boss at their company with zeal that flits between puppyish and cult-like, although given their histories at Disney Animation, it’s understandable. Both witnessed first-hand the studio’s agonising decline in the late nineties and early 2000s, when Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King gave way to the likes of Chicken Little and Brother Bear.

“We were looking at the incredible things Pixar were doing and saying, ‘Who’s going to be our John Lasseter?’?” remembers Williams.

In January 2006, Disney employees found out, when they were summoned to a sound stage at Burbank to meet their new CCO.

“On to the stage walks John Lasseter,” Williams continues, “and, boy, the ovation and cheers... We knew it was going to be a completely fresh start.”

One of Lasseter’s first acts was to replace the Disney commissioning system — in which a panel of ‘creative executives’ handed down films to directors — with what he had initiated at Pixar, where directors pitched their ideas to him.

Another was to insist that directors build their film’s world before refining its story, allowing that research to inform character and plot.

San Fransokyo was the result of hundreds of preparatory sketches by the film’s production designer Paul A Felix and art designer Scott Watanabe — of things as dull as manhole covers, vans and vending machines, trying to locate the differences between Eastern and Western versions.

As a result, San Fransokyo feels plausible and complete — not just like somewhere you’d love to visit, but somewhere you could — as real as Agrabah, the Pride Lands or Arendelle. Forty-three storeys up, in a cloud of jet lag, with shrine bells smiling 700 feet below, the fantasy doesn’t seem so far away.

The Daily Telegraph


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