It’s been almost a year since Walt Disney Pictures released Frozen, and the beloved insta-classic shows no signs of slowing down. Frozen’s impact can’t merely be measured with box office success, though it is Walt Disney Animation’s highest grossing release and the highest grossing animated film of all time. The film broke the aforementioned records at the box office, took home an Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film, empowered its female characters, and explored a complex, non-romantic relationship. It’s already got a musical adaptation in the works, not to mention a theatrical sing-along release and its own arc on ABC’s hit series Once Upon a Time. Anna and Elsa clothing, dolls, and costumes flew off the shelves, critics and audiences sang its praises, and we’re still seeing creative Frozen mash-ups all over the internet.
It’s only fair to assume that Disney’s follow-up animated feature, Big Hero 6, has quite a lot to live up to. Luckily, the Marvel-inspired adventure flick seems up to the challenge. Not only does Big Hero 6 a stellar voice cast and state of the art CG animation, it’s Disney’s very first superhero animated feature. (Remember, The Incredibles is Pixar, not Disney.) But with its November 7 release date now only months away, what can audiences expect from Big Hero 6?
Disney recently invited a handful of journalists to come check out the animation, effects, characters, and story in their upcoming film, and we’re pleased as punch to be able to share our experience with you. Empty out those brains and get ready for some super-knowledge: here’s a little slice (and a ton of never-before-seen images!) of we learned about the movie’s diverse characters, the world of San Fransokyo, and the making of Big Hero 6.
Obligatory Spoiler Alert: This post features images and details about Big Hero 6. (It’s right there in the headline?) If you want to experience the movie totally blind, you should walk away now. Right. Meow.
We arrived at Disney Animation Studios to take a look at some footage and special presentations by the Animation, Story, Visual Effects, and Production Design departments, as well as the film’s directors, Don Hall (Winnie the Pooh) and Chris Williams (Bolt). The footage expanded on what we learned from the first full Big Hero 6 trailer: the story centers around Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), a young robotics prodigy living in San Fransokyo, who befriends a very cute, very silly talking robot named Baymax. Hiro and Baymax eventually team up with a ragtag group of unlikely heroes to form a supergroup and save San Fransoyko! In all the clips we were shown, we realized that Big Hero 6 is not just a playful superhero romp: it deals quite heavily with loss. (Don’t worry, we won’t spoil the specifics for you here.) Baymax is a healthcare robot who joins Hiro in his fairly dangerous adventures as a way to help him cope with his grief.
We also got a much closer look at the world of San Fransokyo, and the mysterious masked villain lurking in its shadows. As the name suggests, San Fransokyo is a wonderful blend of Eastern and Western cultures, greatly inspired by, you guessed it, San Francisco and Tokyo. In fact, much of Big Hero 6‘s world and characters are influenced by science and technology. In one clip, Hiro is applying to a school for the scientifically gifted and presents his latest invention: microbots. When used in the right hands, these microbots can work together to build bridges, new buildings and technologies, and, essentially, make the world a better place. In the wrong hands however (say, the hands of a chilling figure in a Kabuki mask?), the microbots could easily be manipulated to take control of/destroy San Fransokyo… you know, your basic evil villain stuff.
Though Big Hero 6 definitely has some weighty topics to tackle, we were also treated to an exhilarating ride – Hiro’s first ride through the zeppelin-filled skies of San Fransoyko, to be precise. As Baymax takes flight with Hiro in tow, not only were we privy to the sleek, futuristic style of Big Hero 6‘s production design, we really get to see how Baymax can help Hiro heal. They’re buddies, man, and it is adorable.
After the screening, we set off to speak with the creative teams behind Big Hero 6, but first, we were given a tour through a mini San Fransoyko right smack in the middle of the Walt Disney Animation building! Take a look at the layout of themed vending machines, hand-crafted (faux) sushi, character displays, and a life-size, picture-ready Baymax in the gallery below.
We know the basic outline of Big Hero 6’s story, but how exactly did we get to that point? The question on everyone’s minds has been, how closely did Disney look at Marvel’s original comics for inspiration? Director Don Hall has been with the film since day one. In fact, he’s the one who mined through Disney’s archives of acquired Marvel content for potential new film ideas. Though the title and some of the character names remain the same, Disney’s Big Hero 6 is definitely its own entity. “We knew we were a story that’s based on a comic book, and a Marvel comic book to boot, but we were also telling a kid and a robot story, which has a rich tradition in Japanese films,” Hall said. “Because we set we set it in this fictional word of San Fransokyo that is strictly our creation, it automatically severed the ties to the Marvel Universe. It’s our own world that we’re making.”
The characters also evolved from the Big Hero 6 title. In the comics, Baymax looks like a much tougher robot, complete with the ability to shift into “Battle-Dragon” form. However, if you look any clip of Disney’s version, you’ll notice he’s a bit more…. plushy. That lovable squishiness was actually the jumping off point for the entire film. Early on in the development process, Hall and the design team took a research trip to Carnegie Mellon University to meet with a team of engineers and discovered a special kind of robot in the “soft robotics” department. As soon as they saw the springy shape of Carnegie Mellon’s inflatable vinyl, that was it: Baymax was born. Not only does his directive as a healthcare robot help with Hiro’s story, but his pliable shape also provides plenty of room for slapstick gags. Exhibit A: the latest clip from Big Hero 6:
Though the crux of the film came together with the creation of Baymax, that doesn’t mean developing the story was easy. Big Hero 6 has been in production for several years now, and, like many Disney or Pixar animated films, has gone through many iterations before reaching the version you’ll see in theaters. “Story to me is like… this big crazy organic beast that we’re wrangling, and it’s like you’re constantly just ripping stuff down and putting it up and reworking it,” Head of Story Paul Briggs (Frozen) remarked. “This process… it hurts,” agreed Big Hero 6 screenwriter Robert Baird. “You’re constantly throwing stuff out and rebuilding and rebuilding and it takes a long time. There’s about 8 screenings in total [before the story is completed] – there’s somewhere around 3 or 4 where you’re watching with the audience, and you have that face [hides behind his hands], and then you suddenly like, ‘Oh! It’s starting to work.’”
There’s often this concern in Hollywood that heavy rewrites are a bad sign, but with animation (especially in Disney’s process), it means they’re extra laser-focused on getting it right. Consider this: Frozen went through an even longer development process, and look how well that turned out. A good story, animated or not, is a labor of love, and this painstaking process shows that Disney still cares about its final product.
“But Rachel!” you might cry. “That’s all very well and good, but what about all the other heroes? The movie’s called Big Hero 6, after all!” Readers, I love you, but calm down. I’m getting there. It’s true that we haven’t seen much of the gang so far… that is, until now!
Each character is one of Hiro’s friends, and each has their own scientific specialty. (And you’ll notice this is one of the more culturally diverse superhero teams in a modern feature film.) Big Hero 6 also boasts in impressive voice cast, including T.J. Miller (Fred), Damon Wayons Jr. (Wasabi), Jamie Chung (GoGo), Génesis Rodríguez (Honey Lemon), and Maya Rudolph (Aunt Cass, pictured in the gallery below). Throughout the course of the film, Hiro not only learns more about his strengths, but helps his friends discover their own powers as well.
We don’t want to spoil too much for you, but we’ve got a little something to tide you over ’til the film’s release. Feast your eyes on this gallery of character and design art to take a closer look at San Fransokyo, as well as all six members of Big Hero 6:
Ultimately, as director Don Hall said, Big Hero 6 is a movie about a boy and his robot, and from what we’ve seen so far, it looks like it’s going to be an impressive combo of super slick action, groundbreaking effects, and that emotional layer that makes Disney animated films so classic.
Are you excited to see Disney’s Big Hero 6? Which character design do you like best? Are you also dying for your own pal Baymax? Sound off in the comments below, or share your plushy robot dreams with me (@RachelHeine) on Twitter!
Big Hero 6 flies into theaters November 7, 2014.