A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to head over to the Walt Disney Animation Studio in Burbank, California to check out the early press day for the newest Disney animated film, Big Hero 6. This one is based on a Marvel comic, but it’s completely its own thing. It’s a new story, completely separate from the Marvel cinematic universe, and based in the fictional city San Fransokyo (a portmanteau of San Francisco and Tokyo).
Here’s the official synopsis:
From Walt Disney Animation Studios, the team behind “Frozen” and “Wreck-It Ralph,” comes “Big Hero 6,” an action-packed comedy-adventure about the special bond that develops between Baymax (voice of Scott Adsit), a plus-sized inflatable robot, and prodigy Hiro Hamada (voice of Ryan Potter). When a devastating event befalls the city of San Fransokyo and catapults Hiro into the midst of danger, he turns to Baymax and his close friends adrenaline junkie Go Go Tomago (voice of Jamie Chung), neatnik Wasabi (voice of Damon Wayans Jr.), chemistry whiz Honey Lemon (voice of Genesis Rodriguez) and fanboy Fred (voice of T.J. Miller). Determined to uncover the mystery, Hiro transforms his friends into a band of high-tech heroes called “Big Hero 6.”
We got to see a nice sized chunk of the film, which included the close relationship between Hiro and his older brother. Hiro is brilliant, but a bit of a slacker. He creates amazing robots, but he’s your typical teenager…that is, until tragedy changes his life. So naturally, he and his friends have to get together to save the day. We got to speak to directors Don Hall and Chris Williams about the film. Hall told us how this property came to the forefront:
A few years ago I was looking at what my next project would be here at Disney Animation, and as a lifelong fan of comic books and a lifelong fan of Disney Animation, I started imagining what a combination of those two things would look like…What drew me to this most was the title. Early on, John Lasseter and I were talking about taking a Marvel property and doing something with it. I started doing research on my own, and based on my own childhood memory of comic books I like, and also lunch hours I spent on their websites and looking at different properties and I came across Big Hero 6. A Japanese superhero team. That sounds cool. I got a few of the comics and read them, and I really liked the tone, which was playful and fun and it felt like it was this love letter to Japanese pop culture and superheroes. And I felt, that was kind of perfect for us.
Now, fans of the comic series will recognize names and characters, but Hall says the story is completely unique.
Once we started talking to Marvel, they really encouraged us to take it in our own direction. Don’t feel like you have to set this in the Marvel Universe. You can take it and make it your own. So that was really awesome. To be able to do that, I felt like we really needed to do more of a fantasy world. This idea of mashing up two cities became really fun. Just like mashing up Disney and Marvel, the city is a mashup of different aesthetics. Tokyo was the obvious one, and San Francisco kind of hit upon this idea of, there are such cool landmarks that you could put a Japanese makeover on and make it really interesting.
From what we saw, San Fransokyo is a real character in the film. If you’re familiar with San Francisco at all, you’ll definitely recognize certain buildings. I sat through the presentation and realized how little of the background in animation I often miss. There is an insane amount of work that went into this place, this fictional city – from the awnings to the streets to the people who populate it. It’s absolutely gorgeous. And as a bonus, fans of the comic will see more that they recognize from the Chris Claremont run of the series.
In terms of how much involvement Marvel had in the story, Hall said, “We call them friends of the court, you know. We got to be pretty good friend with Joe Quesada and Jeph Loeb. Joe is their Chief Creative Officer. They came to screenings and they became part of our story trust and after the screenings they would give notes, just like any other story trust. They just kind of came into that group.” Hall and Williams told us that those initial screenings are really interesting. They said that you work like crazy for months on something, show it to the rest of the people over at Disney, it gets ripped apart and you’re lucky if you walk out with a few good ideas. They said that all the films go through this process and that it’s an important part of it all. They joked about the initial version of Frozen, which bore little resemblance to the film you saw in theaters. “All of the notes here are given with the best of intentions.” Williams added that Marvel was “very supportive throughout.”
The animation is super cool, the characters are fun and yes, smart! Scientists, engineers…not bad role models, right? And Baymax is even cooler. I didn’t think I could fall in love with another robot after WALL-E, but Baymax is huggable! We learned that the animators did a ton of research on soft robots (this one inflates and deflates). I don’t want to spoil any more of what we saw for you, but trust me when I say, you’re going to love him and he’s really funny. We’ll have more for you as the film gets closer.
Big Hero 6 hits theaters on October 23.
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