2014 was a bit light for Walt Disney Animation and Pixar Studios. Between the two of them, they released only Big Hero 6, which turned out to be enough — it was that year’s highest-grossing animated film and won the Best Animated Feature Oscar. It also just so happened to be an excellent movie. Pixar followed up in 2015 with two features, the Oscar-winning Inside Out and the truly strange, less well-received The Good Dinosaur. While the studio proved it could still tell surprising, complex, highly-emotional stories, it also proved that not every high concept would come together the way it needs to.
Big Hero 6 (2014)
This movie is loosely based on the Marvel Comics limited series created by Man of Action (the same brain trust that spawned Ben 10 and Generator Rex), but essentially takes the character templates and little else. While the comic is sort of an Avengers of Japan, Disney decided to set the story in San Fransokyo, a wonderful mash-up of East and West. Hiro Hamada, the 14-year-old prodigy who helps develop Baymax, is the leader right from the jump, while just about every other member of the fledgling superhero team is really different. Fred isn’t an Inu person who can create a kaiju “aura” to fight with; he’s a total fanboy with surprisingly unlimited wealth. Baymax isn’t a dragon-transforming robot with the brain waves of Hiro’s slain father; he’s a “soft” robot designed to provide instant health care to anyone nearby.
I’ve never read the comic, I’ll admit that right now, so I don’t have any attachments that would make me judge Big Hero 6 against its source material. But the movie we get is a wonder, a love letter to superhero origin stories, Eastern sci-fi, and Asian influences on American pop culture. Hiro is one of those quietly revolutionary protagonists, a true, honest-to-goodness Asian-American who isn’t shoehorned into a stereotype or forced to carry the cultural weight of his ancestry — he’s allowed to be a kid figuring out hard lessons on his own.
Hiro’s brother Tadashi is a student at the research lab of San Fransokyo Tech, a cutting-edge facility that pushes the boundaries of applied robotics. Tadashi wants Hiro to do something worthwhile with his genius for automation instead of making robots to fight in…underground battlebot arenas, so he introduces his little brother to the other students and his crowning achievement: Baymax. Meeting Baymax and the other students totally works. Inspired, Hiro works hard to develop a revolutionary microbot technology. His ticket into the university is assured.
However, a fire at the research lab takes the life of Hiro’s brother and the head of the robotics research lab in one fell swoop. Depressed, Hiro shuts himself away from the world and Tadashi’s friends until Baymax is activated, forcing Hiro into action once they discover that one of his microbots is being called to a specific location. That opens the door to a mystery that tests Hiro’s innermost desires, forces him to confront his loss and brings together San Fransokyo’s resident super-hero team, Big Hero 6!
The film looks totally unique thanks to the design of both San Fransokyo and Baymax. The environments and background are undoubtedly San Francisco, but with Japanese influences that make the city pop that much more. Eucalyptus trees are replaced with cherry blossoms; downtown is a hyper-dense cluster of futuristic skyscrapers; the iconic Golden Gate Bridge features torii gates over its span. The city is effortlessly diverse, a number of different people from all kind of backgrounds coming together to live and work. It’s really, really awesome.
The characters are stone-cold awesome, too; Baymax is a robot for the ages, while Hiro is sympathetic, a little smug, and believably brash all at once. They make an excellent pair, with Baymax serving as the observant, considerate brake to Hiro’s tightly-focused drive. Hiro, like most of us, has trouble seeing the world outside of himself. It’s Baymax, who was programmed only to help others as his primary concern, who teaches him what made Tadashi so special and how he can live up to his brother’s legacy.
The other team members who round out the cast — bubbly geek girl Honey Lemon, big scaredy-cat Wasabi, tough speedster GoGo, and slacker fan-boy Fred — are pretty great in the limited roles they have. Mostly this is Hiro’s story, so they support his narrative arc without getting much of one on their own. The inevitable sequel, and the upcoming TV series, should dive into their lives quite a bit more. Honestly, I’m super-excited to visit San Fransokyo again and learn more about all of these characters. Maybe Fred will actually get kaiju powers somewhere along the way!
Big Hero 6 is Walt Disney really embracing the storytelling aesthetic of Pixar while forging ahead to create their own identity for the 21st century. I know how weird it is to say that when it’s an adaptation of a comic from a company they’ve only recently come to own, but it’s also true. Disney has developed a real knack for taking stories that might be half-baked or problematic and smoothing out the rough edges until it shines, and this movie is the best proof of why that’s a good thing.
Inside Out (2015)
Folks joke that Inside Out is peak Pixar, the logical extreme of the “What if x had emotions?” byline that underpins so many of their movies. And OK, fair cop. But if this is where that kind of storytelling leads, I’m totally fine with them running that concept into the ground. Inside Out gives the coming-of-age story an insightful twist by wrapping it around the mismatched-buddy road-trip tale that takes place entirely inside a teenager’s mind.
Young Riley is a girl with a loving mom and dad, a great group of friends, and hobbies that excite and engage her. That’s all upended when her father moves them all in a (let’s be charitable) fixer-upper rowhouse in San Francisco. Losing her friends to distance, her parents to stress, and her hobbies taxes her ability to cope, forcing severe and irrevocable changes that usher in a new stage of her life.
Inside Riley’s head, Joy tries very hard to help Riley make the best of it with her fellow emotions at the controls — Anger, Disgust, Fear, and Sadness. When Sadness, the one emotion Joy can’t figure out a reason for, begins to color Riley’s memories it sparks a chain of events that takes both of them out of “Central Control”, and into the labyrinthine landscape of Riley’s brain. They have to work together to find their way back before Fear, Anger and Disgust cause a complete shutdown.
Inside Out is most impressive in the way it spins a story from the complicated process of a little girl battling the depression that comes with an intensely difficult life change. Using these simple concepts as actual characters, we get a frame of reference for what it’s like when joy has left the building and what happens to us when we grow up. Riley’s entire internal landscape changes, and that upheaval is traumatic and frightening and awful; in that vacuum where we try to rebuild ourselves, it’s all too easy to fall into despair over the losses that accumulate through those experiences.
It’s here that we see the magic of Sadness and the value of allowing ourselves to mourn the things we lose. The ability to empathize with the pain of other people, to share that burden and let them know they’re not alone, is tremendous. It allows us to mark the end of an experience, then move on to the next one. It also allows us to realize that we can hold more than one emotion at a time; it’s rare that something we experience is only one thing or another, and sometimes we can even remember a situation as both sad AND joyful.
Each one of the set pieces through the film teach us something new about how our brain works and how we process our emotions. While it might look like Joy is the only “positive” emotion in the bunch, we come to appreciate the utility of Disgust, Fear, Anger and even Sadness as we move through Riley’s journey. Every scene ends with another change to Riley’s internal psyche, and because we’ve each had experiences like hers we can feel the impact of those changes right along with her.
It’s a beautiful movie with writing that works with incredible precision on multiple layers. The film was co-written and directed by Pete Docter, the same guy who directed Monsters, Inc. and Up — two of Pixar’s most emotionally-earnest stories. Docter’s ability to take a concept and ground it strong, universal experiences is a particularly strong gift of his, and out of all the folks in the Pixar Brain Trust I think it’s his stories that I love best.
Inside Out is absolutely one of the best Pixar movies ever. Even though it was universally-beloved when it was released, won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and was the second-highest-grossing animated film of 2015 (behind Minions), it feels like one of those films that could easily be overlooked for some reason. I’ll gladly be an evangelist for it, though; it’s far too great a film to not be a part of “best animated films of all-time” conversation.
The Good Dinosaur (2015)
The Good Dinosaur isn’t a bad movie, but it could have been so much better. A story set in an alternate world where an asteroid never smashed into the planet, allowing those huge and terrible thunder-lizards to evolve into sapient, tool-using creatures is one rich with possibility, but The Good Dinosaur doesn’t do very much with it beyond its central twist. It feels like the film is reaching for a throwback to those frontier coming-of-age stories featuring a boy and his dog leaving innocence behind over a summer, only with the dinosaur as the boy and the human as his dog. It doesn’t quite get there, mainly because it feels like the movie really doesn’t have a single vision.
Arlo is the runt of his litter in a family of apatosaurs, who grow crops of corn to make sure they have enough to eat through the harsh winter. Nobby-kneed and clumsy, he frustrates his huge older brother Nash and confounds his patient and exasperated parents Henry and Ida. An accident plunges Arlo into a river at the edge of the property, where he’s swept by a raging current that takes him far from home. Out in the wilderness, Arlo befriends a little human corn thief he names “Spot”; together, they traverse the frontier as Arlo tries to make his way back home.
The environments are absolutely breathtaking, I have to say. An astonishing variety of landscapes are presented with loving, careful detail — mountain peaks, dense forests, wide-open plains, the modest cultivated plot of a farmstead. It’s odd, then, that this technical wizardry doesn’t extend to Arlo and the other dinosaurs we meet along the way; he is distractingly cartoonish, such an odd collection of shapes that don’t quite fit together we can’t ever really buy him as a living, breathing creature.
That visual contradiction extends to the story as well. At its heart, The Good Dinosaur is a gentle fable about what to do with fear and how Arlo learns to be brave and resourceful on his way back home. But the episodic nature of the film doesn’t let us see Arlo developing much; scenes revolve around strange characters or intense experiences that are amusing or impressive, but we never get a sense of narrative momentum. Arlo and Spot grow closer as a pair and the way each changes through that relationship is sweet, but it’s a different thing entirely from Arlo’s central arc. Most of the time, this results in a feeling that the stakes aren’t clearly set; there’s a vague understanding that things will be bad if Arlo fails, but there’s not enough emotional clarity for things to really land.
A lot of the set pieces are pretty neat, though; Arlo meets a really strange Styracosaurus who provides a home of sort for various forest mammals, gets a hold of some fermented berries that leads to a truly weird drunken interlude, and helps a family of cattle-rustling Tyrannosaurs recover their longhorns. These scenes are too short to have a lot of impact, though, and just by the time they’ve piqued our interest it’s time for Arlo and Spot to move on.
The end of the film doesn’t land the way it needs to, either. The resolution of Arlo and Spot’s relationship doesn’t feel true to either character, and it would have been nice to provide the young Apatosaur with a situation that allows him to coalesce his newfound knowledge into concrete action that proves he’s worthy of the reward he’s wanted all along. Things just…end, with almost everything that had been upended at the beginning of the film set right.
Bob Peterson, who co-directed Up for Pixar previously, was famously removed from the project due to the usual “creative differences”. According to executives at the studio, the story just wasn’t where it needed to be and Peterson couldn’t get it there. So they brought in Peter Sohn, another animator, for his first directing credit. From there the story was changed fairly drastically, and it shows; it feels like Pixar could have used a lot more time to let the elements they were using settle, but at that point they were locked into a release date that had already been pushed back once. The result? Something half-baked, but with the faint whiff of greatness it could have had if it had been allowed to cook a little longer.
I don’t know if The Good Dinosaur is Pixar’s worst movie, but it might the most disappointing one. The story is OK and the animation is amazing, but I still couldn’t recommend it for anyone except Pixar completionists. Still, it’s streets ahead of most Ice Age movies, that’s for sure.