Big Hero 6


Hiro and Baymax get stealthy.

Hiro and Baymax get stealthy.

(2014) Animated Feature (Disney/Marvel) Starring the voices of Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, Daniel Henney, T.J. Miller, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans Jr., Genesis Rodriguez, James Cromwell, Alan Tudyk, Maya Rudolph, Abraham Benrubi, Katie Lowes, Billy Bush, Daniel Gerson, Paul Briggs, Charlotte Gulezian, David Shaughnessy, Terri Douglas. Directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams

We are not a one of us who knows what we’re truly capable of until we test ourselves. Whatever motivates us – ego, greed, tragedy, desire, altruism – it remains for us to see what we can do.

Hiro (Potter) is a robotics genius. In the alternate world of San Fransokyo where Japanese immigrants rebuilt the city after the 1905 earthquake and meshed the architecture of Occidental and the Land of the Rising Sun to create a more quake-resistant city. The San Francisco Institute of Technology is one of the finest cutting-edge schools in the nation and the city is a jewel of natural beauty married to technological advances.

Hiro’s brother Tadashi (Henney) is, like Hiro, a genius at robotics. Whereas Hiro is out for financial gain in underground street Robobattles, Tadashi is creating a robot that will genuinely make the world a better place. Tadashi attends SF Tech with his friends Honey Lemon (Rodriguez), Go-Go (Chung), Wasabi (Wayans) and Fred (Miller) under the tutelage of Professor Robert Callaghan (Cromwell) who is respected and admired by his students. Tadashi is urging Hiro to come join him at the school after Hiro graduates high school but Hiro is none too eager to join up with, as he terms it, Nerd Tech. However, he grudgingly agrees to sign up after Tadashi pesters him enough.

Then tragedy strikes and Hiro discovers that there is something terrible going on, something involving his own invention – mini-bots that can be controlled by brain waves – and a kabuki-masked villain. Using Baymax (Adsit), a robot that Tadashi was working on, Hiro and his friends will have to develop armor with different powers in order to stop a catastrophe from happening and to bring the bad guy to justice.

 

This is the third straight fall release from Disney Animation to hit a home run (Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen preceded it) and quite frankly after a less-than-satisfactory year for animated entertainment at the box office, trust Disney to set things right in that regard. This is a natural, with cuddly soft robots resembling the love child between Gigantor and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, both references likely to fly right over the head of most younger readers.

While the cast isn’t particularly well-known – no Tom Hanks or Paul Newman or Billy Crystal here – it is pretty solid and a bit younger and hipper than the voice cast that Pixar generally uses. T.J. Miller as Fred is especially fun; reportedly he ad-libbed a lot of his dialogue. The main roles of the brothers are less well-known voice actors and come off as fairly bland typical animated prince guys.

The city of San Fransokyo while not dazzling visually is inventive, clever and looks like it could be a real place. Sure some San Franciscans may take umbrage at the liberties the animators took with their home town but as an ex-resident I have to say that I’m delighted to see The City by the Bay portrayed both in an animated feature and a Marvel comic. It is after all one of the most charming big cities in the country.

 

While this is definitely more Disney than Marvel, there is plenty here to keep those who aren’t still drinking out of juice boxes plenty to cheer about. The humor can be dry and acerbic as well as broad enough to land a 747 on. Kids will laugh, their parents will too. It’s a win-win.

There are some moments that actually brought a tear to my eye which is something in the animated feature world had previously been reserved only for Pixar films. This isn’t a movie that’s talking down to anyone and at the same time isn’t afraid to tackle issues that most kidflicks shy away from. That’s pretty refreshing and while it deals with some pretty tough subjects it doesn’t turn maudlin nor does it pander. What we end up with is a way in to conversations that some kids sadly are forced to have when they are far too young. You’ll get what I mean when you see the movie.

This is the first Marvel property to be developed by Disney as an animated feature. While it isn’t a part of the cinematic universe that the House of Ideas has created (for one thing, characters in the comic include Silver Samurai and Sunfire, are actually part of the X-Men universe and unavailable for Disney) it does have a fresh four-color look all its own. However, those coming to the theater expecting an animated Guardians of the Galaxy will leave disappointed; this is clearly separate from anything else Marvel has done. Which is, in my book, a good thing.

REASONS TO GO: Inventive and fun. Surprisingly moving in places.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t retain the Marvel “feel.”
FAMILY VALUES: There is some action and peril, a bit of rude humor and some thematic elements that may be too much for the littlest of tots.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third consecutive non-Pixar and non-Studio Ghibli animated film that Alan Tudyk has voiced, making him the John Ratzenberger of Disney.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Iron Giant
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Whiplash

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St. Vincent


Sometimes you have to dig in the dirt to get clean.

Sometimes you have to dig in the dirt to get clean.

(2014) Comedy (Weinstein) Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd, Jaeden Lieberher, Terrence Howard, Kimberly Quinn, Lenny Venito, Nate Corddry, Dario Barosso, Donna Mitchell, Ann Dowd, Scott Adsit, Reg E. Cathey, Deirdre O’Connell, Ray Iannicelli, Greta Lee, Melissa Elena Ramirez, Ron McLarty, Niles Fitch, Emma Fisher, David Iacono, Alexandra Fong. Directed by Ted Melfi

Some people just have mean and nasty dispositions. Maybe they don’t like people in general. Maybe they get some sort of satisfaction from putting other people down. Or maybe there’s another reason they act the way they do.

Vincent (Murray) is as curmudgeonly as they come. He lives in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn. He is either unemployed or retired. He spends his days drinking in a run-down bar, betting on the horse races at Belmont or hanging with a pregnant Russian prostitute named Daka (Watts). He smokes like a chimney and is generally a pretty unpleasant guy to know.

Into the neighborhood moves Maggie (McCarthy), a single mom still in the process of a bitter divorce from her unfaithful husband David (Adsit), and her precocious son Oliver (Lieberher). Things don’t get off to a good start with their new neighbor when her off-the-books movers accidentally knock a tree limb on top of Vincent’s car, damaging it. Vincent is predictably upset and reacts – also predictably – rudely. Welcome to the neighborhood.

Oliver is the sort of kid who just seems to attract bullies. He’s undersized and of course he doesn’t know anybody. To top it off, he’s a Jewish kid in a Catholic school. So on his first day of school at St. Patrick’s Academy a couple of bullies take his phone and keys. His mother is working as an MRI technician so he has to make his way home and when he gets there, she’s still at work. Left with no choice, he asks Vincent if he can use his phone. Vincent, somewhat begrudgingly, allows him to. Maggie can’t get away to let her son back in the house, but she arranges with Vincent to watch Oliver until she gets there – which Vincent insists on getting paid for.

Vincent has money troubles with a loan shark (Howard) on his back trying to collect. He also has  bills coming due, so he asks Maggie if she would like to make a regular gig of it. Maggie, not really having much of a choice, agrees.

So into Vincent’s world Oliver goes. Oliver joins him at the track, and at the bar. He also gets an insider’s look at what makes Vincent tick. Oliver is introduced to Daka whom Vincent describes as a “Lady of the Night.” Vincent teaches Oliver self-defense with the disclaimer “Don’t worry, you won’t get it right.” He also teaches Oliver something about self-confidence and of creating your own moral compass.

Still, there is a lot of stress in Vincent’s world, with money problems coming to a head and a loved one in dire straits. There’s also plenty of stress in Maggie’s world as she has to take additional shifts to make ends meet, and then her ex-husband is suing for custody of Oliver – mainly to punish Maggie. When Vincent’s style of “babysitting” comes to light, it threatens to destroy everyone’s world.

Murray has come a long way from his SNL days, and has delivered some strong performances such as in Lost in Translation and What About Bob. This is right up there with his best. Murray has said in interviews that Vincent is a lot like who he really is and let’s be frank, he tends to play very similar characters most of the time and Vincent has a lot in common with other characters Murray has played. Yet there is a humanity in Vincent that comes out unexpectedly even as he sometimes erects additional height on the walls he’s built around himself.

We’ve come to expect these sorts of performances from Murray so the success of the movie is going to hinge on how well his co-star Lieberher can hold his own with the star. The surprising answer is, rather well. Lieberher is absolutely convincing as the kind of wallflower that Oliver is, and while Oliver is clearly wise beyond his years, he’s not the kind of precocious kid actor who never lets you forget he’s pretending to be someone else. Instead, Lieberher kind of inhabits the role and makes a fine foil for Murray throughout.

The rest of the supporting cast is pretty strong as well, McCarthy and Watts in particularly impressive in roles that aren’t typical for them. McCarthy is more of a straight woman here, although she does get a few zingers off. But she shows that when she’s not being cast as a boorish slob, she can be extremely likable and sympathetic. Watts turns the traditional “hooker with a heart of gold” role on its ear, making Daka acerbic and sometimes as curmudgeonly as Vincent but despite the Natasha Fatale-style accent, the character comes off as real and believable. Chris O’Dowd is also impressive as a teacher at St. Patrick’s, a priest who is more worldly than you’d expect.

The movie does tend to go for the schmaltzy cliches a bit too eagerly with the ending becoming a bit too sitcom for my liking. I also have to admit that there are a few plot points like the loan shark that don’t really get resolved; they just seem to fade from view.

Still, any movie with a performance like this from Bill Murray is worth seeking out and St. Vincent is certainly one that you should. It’s funny, there’s plenty of pathos and while parts of it are sitcom-like, there is at least a heart here that hits you unexpectedly rather than clubbing you over the head throughout. This is a gem of a movie.

REASONS TO GO: Murray’s a hoot and Lieberher does an impressive job of staying with him.  Fine supporting performances by Watts and O’Dowd, and McCarthy is excellent in a very different kind of role for her.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit cliche and occasionally boggles the mind with sitcom sugary sweetness.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of adult thematic material some of which involves sexuality, alcohol and tobacco use and a plethora of cursing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At one point, Jack Nicholson was rumored to be taking the title role but eventually it went to Murray.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grumpy Old Men
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: John Wick