Over/Under: “Big Hero 6” (2014) and “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” (2001)
Remember when The Lego Movie wasn’t nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars? Let’s just take a moment of silence to commemorate that sad moment ………………………. and now let’s have a moment of anger as we discuss the movie that won that Oscar. Big Hero 6 opened to (expectedly) incredible box-office numbers as well as some very positive critical reception. After Disney bought Marvel, they’ve tried to stay under the radar and pretend all is as it once was, but this movie is an exception. It seems the animation department teamed up with the boring script department to make what is practically a Junior Marvel movie.
[SLIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD]
Big Hero 6 revolves around Jimmy Neutr–er wait–Hiro Hamada, a super smart tech-fiend who uses his skills in the field of robotics to dominate the underground robot-fighting rings. For like 2 minutes. And then his brother, Tadashi, starts nudging him towards applying to San Fransokyo’s Institute of Technology. Then a good ol’ “college is fun” sequence plays and Hiro ends up designing Nano-Bots that can be used for good (and maybe evil–dun dun dun!) in order to impress the admissions people. And then the whole building lights on fire and Tadashi blows up. Darn it. Soon after this, Hiro teams up with Goddard. Oh wait, I mean The Iron Giant. No no, Baymax (there you go), his brother’s medical robot that he had been designing before he got extra crispy, as well as his newfound friends in order to stop some evil-doer who has been using Hiro’s nano-bots to do… well…evil.
This movie absorbs the worst parts of modern Disney movies as well as the worst parts of Marvel movies and fills the screen with clichés from both. One of the biggest problems I had with the movie is its attempted balancing of light-hearted fun and pretty heavy-weight themes of grief and loss. Up is a perfect example of a movie that managed to pull-off this tough balancing act and it did so by allotting whole scenes to its more serious subject matter (i.e. the “if you don’t cry, you’re a sociopath” opening sequence) and then giving the audience relief in the form of fun adventures. Big Hero 6 never lets a dark scene go on long enough to be sad, and never lets a fun scene go on long enough to be enjoyable. One second the movie asks us to empathize with Hiro as he stares at a burning building containing his now dead brother, and then right after the funeral, it’s asking us to chuckle at random funeral puns. Too soon! And as soon as you’re almost smiling the movie seems to whisper, “psst–his brother exploded, remember that?”
That’s just my opinion, of course, maybe some people were able to enjoy both ends of the movie’s emotional spectrum. But what is undeniable is the movie’s utter predictability and whole-hearted reliance on clichéd characters. If you have ever seen a superhero movie with more than one superhero on screen in it (Avengers, X-Men, Captain America, etc.) then you don’t need to watch this. At first, the heroes try to take on the baddies by themselves and find that their abilities alone are no match for evil–it’s only when they team up that they’re strong enough to fight it! Wow. Snooze, snore, boring. This story arc is used in so many movies–The Incredibles, X-Men: First Class, The Avengers–and Big Hero 6 doesn’t even try to pretend that its bringing anything new to the table. If I was forced to watch another happy-teamwork-training montage I probably would have gone insane. But don’t leave just yet! You’ll miss the twist–you’ll never guess who the main villain really is! Except you will. If you’re above the age of four and have eyes, you’ll be able to see the “twist” coming from a mile away. The whole plot feels like a bad first draft of The Avengers with the ages dropped down a bit. In fact, [spoilers] the ending portal sequence is the exact same setup, just infinitely more boring.
It’s unfortunate that they wasted Baymax–the robot sidekick–on this movie. He was the only truly fun part of the movie, but certainly not enough to save it. I can barely remember any of his quotes since they were injected into scenes that were otherwise head-smackingly bad, but I certainly remember getting a few smiles from him. Even he gets boring, though, when he puts on an Ironman suit and downloads karate moves like he’s Neo in the Matrix. All good things must come to an end. If the movie had been any more realistic, Hiro would have died from the pure G forces resulting from the 90 degree turns he takes while going 100mph on Baymax’s back and then–even though we would have probably been subjected to another dreary funeral–the movie could have mercifully cut down its running time. But no such luck. The moral of the story that I took away from the whole film is: don’t go to college. Your brother will blow up and then your life will become extremely predictable.
Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if Disney made a steampunk adventure set in the 1910’s? What if it had crystal-energy powered flying sharks, giant robot lobsters, and dynamite? Ooh, maybe it could have an anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism message embedded under a pristine layer of unique visuals and the hardest scene to animate in Disney history! Pish posh, you exclaim! Disney would never put so much hard work into a risky idea like that.
Well, they did, and it’s called Atlantis: The Lost Empire. (2001)
From the get-go, Atlantis sets itself completely apart from the rest of Disney’s extensive filmography of animated films by accessing far more mature source material. Rather than going for the usual cash-grab of children’s fairy tales, Atlantis is based on the titular fictional empire from myths around the world. Although many if not all Disney movies feature nuanced and multilayered narratives that adults can potentially find engaging, Atlantis is their first and only movie to outright target adults.
Set in the eve of the First World War (already a time frame with little magical value), it follows the adventures of Milo Thatch, a cartographer and linguist of dead languages (even less special – almost intentionally so). He successfully translates an ancient book called the Shepherd’s Journal, which is essentially a Lonely Planet guide on the Atlantean Empire. Milo and his crew burst into Atlantis via badass steampunk submarines and eventually find that not only does Atlantis still exist, it also has a magical crystalline energy source that can generate infinite power. But alas, the entire expedition was a trap set up by Rourke, the ruthless, Reagan-esque villain that wanted to steal the central crystal and sell it for an early retirement.
Of course, our unlikely hero saves the day and everyone lives happily ever after. The plot is admittedly extremely straightforward, and I was even able to figure it out when I saw it in theaters as a pre-schooler. However, the zany crew is what really brings the story together. The supporting roles feature a surprisingly diverse range of ethnicities: a Black/Native American doctor, a French excavator, an Italian demolitions expert, and a Latina mechanic. The dialogue doesn’t even subtly poke fun at their backgrounds; they are greatly respected for their trade (except Moliere, but he’s literally a human/mole hybrid that eats dirt) and they all present their own flavor to the script purely based on their personalities. This may not sound particularly progressive, but Atlantis underplays it so much that I didn’t even notice until I started writing this paragraph.
Atlantis also features a highly original art style that is unique to the Disneyverse. It does indeed feature the single most technically challenging and time-consuming shot in Disney history – a crusted layer of lava cracks off an energy shield that is covering the city, and it slowly crumbles off in intricate, hieroglyphic patterns. (By the way, said glyphs are part of a runic language created solely for this movie) However, the rest of the film is equally beautiful. Notable among the animating crew is Mike Mignola, creator of the Hellboy comics, and his direction adds a special touch that was never seen before. Unfortunately it will never be seen again since Disney wasn’t happy enough with Atlantis’ profits and went back to the princess formula (see Tangled and Frozen, and I don’t care how progressively women are portrayed in those movies, they’re still princess stories). But even as a one-time thing, Disney’s shot at grittier animation is snazzy, swanky and stylish.
And the themes! One could easily argue that, prior to its acquisition of Pixar, Atlantis is Disney’s only movie with a sophisticated underlying theme that isn’t about love, friendship, or family. Rourke may seem like a one-dimensional villain that is inherently dislikable, and for the most part, he is. However, his personality and dialogue contain signs of cultural and even racial superiority and a lack of empathy towards the Atlanteans. It is true that his ultimate goal was simply to make money, but he certainly wasn’t polite to the locals while he was at it. In many ways, Rourke can be compared to Clayton from Tarzan (1999): they’re old white men, they’re surprisingly buff for their age, and they represent colonialism. Furthermore, Rourke’s desire to sell the energy crystal despite it literally being the spiritual, technological, and cultural center of Atlantis is reminiscent of ruthless capitalism, a subject that is rarely discussed in other animated films in general, let alone other Disney movies.
As a five year old, I just thought the submarines were cool. They definitely still are, too; us surface-dwellers still used coal engines in the 1910’s, and the steampunk vehicles of the era create an interesting visual contrast to the simultaneously hyper-advanced and ancient-Aztec-esque technology that the Atlanteans have. But fifteen years have aged Atlantis: The Lost Empire like fine wine, and there is so much more for everyone to appreciate today. I’ll take it any day over another Disney flick full of anthropomorphic animals and damsels in distress.
Written by David Goodliffe and William Park