Big Hero 6: ‘It’s a Disney animated film with Marvel DNA’

As Disney's latest animated blockbuster opens in the UAE, we chat with its producer Roy Conli.
A scene from Disney’s Big Hero 6 showing Baymax, the robot. Courtesy Disney
A scene from Disney’s Big Hero 6 showing Baymax, the robot. Courtesy Disney
There are a few things that don’t make sense about Disney’s new film Big Hero 6.

For instance: why, after acquiring Marvel in 2009, did it take Walt’s animators five years to get around to making a film based on one of the characters they forked out US$4.6 billion (Dh16.9bn) for?

And why then decide to overlook Marvel’s pantheon of superheroes and make a movie based on Big Hero 6 – a 12-issue comic-book series few people have heard of?

“At first Marvel were like: ‘Did we do that?’” says the film’s producer Roy Conli, recalling the moment his team shared their plans with their stablemates.

More baffling still was the decision to sideline most of the book’s cast of 10 heroes – including the seemingly cinema-ready Silver Samurai – to focus on just two: the cuddly, synthetic robot Baymax and his teenage inventor Hiro, who set out together to investigate the mysterious death of the boy’s older brother.

But there was a clever method to the apparent madness.

“It’s absolute freedom,” says Conli. “By not having any preconceived notions, you’re able tell the story you want to tell. Essentially, we took the source material, the title and the names of the major characters and then went in and worked it around.”

He credits his co-director Don Hall for the strategy. Flush from the success of his directional debut Winnie the Pooh, the self-confessed “comic-book geek” wanted a new challenge.

“Marvel have a huge Wikipedia page,” says Conli, “and every lunch hour, Don would go through it, looking for inspiration, until Big Hero 6 popped to the top of his list. He’d never read it, he’d never seen it – but it was a superhero team set in Tokyo, a kind of love letter to Japanese pop culture, and he loved it.”

Obviously it takes more than a whim and geeky comic-book affection to get a movie made.

Conli says Disney has a “Brain Trust” system where key writers, directors and business chiefs meet every 12 weeks to share ideas and keep productions on track.

One of the team’s innovations for the film was the idea of moving the story from Tokyo to a fictional, futuristic city called San Fransokyo – a hybrid of the Japanese capital and San Francisco, which Conli describes as “the world’s most iconic city”.

Did such a radical reinterpretation of the source material ruffle feathers in the Marvel camp? Conli dismisses rumours that the comic creators asked for the project to have a darker, more adult tone.

“We had Joe Quesada, the chief creative officer for Marvel, and Jeph Loeb, head of television, at every screening we did – they’re all big fans,” says Conli. “It’s a Disney animated film with Marvel DNA.”

Let’s not forget there are some pretty impressive feathers to be ruffled at Disney, too – Big Hero 6 is the studio’s 54th animated feature in 91 years.

“That legacy is something that we all take very seriously,” says Conli, who joined the company two decades ago after working in theatre. His first film production credit was 1996’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and he helmed 2010’s hit Tangled.

“All of us understand that Disney is something very special.”

Yet, at the beginning of the 21st century Disney’s trademark hand-drawn animations were increasingly being overlooked by audiences in favour of computer-animation technology popularised by Pixar, DreamWorks and Blue Sky Studios (who scored big with Toy Story, Shrek and Ice Age respectively).

Disney’s reputation was revived by the 2006 acquisition of Pixar, whose chief, John Lasseter, was given creative control at Disney. Crucially, a decision was made to keep a streamlined Walt Disney Animation Studio operating with, but separate from, Pixar.

After years of trailing their new neighbours commercially, Disney’s fortunes were largely restored with the runaway success of last year’s Frozen.

Conli was in the UAE for the regional premiere of Big Hero 6, which closed the Abu Dhabi Film Festival on Friday.

Looking at the multicultural inspiration behind the creation of San Fransokyo, one can’t help wondering what it would take to get a version of the UAE on-screen in a Disney animation – Abu Dallas, say? The desert would suit both of its real-world inspirations.

“Abu Dallas? I like that a lot,” says Conli. “Definitely interesting. The way films become films at Disney is director-driven. If someone has a great idea for Abu Dallas, pitches the idea, and the Brain Trust believe that it’s a great idea, that’s how it gets done.”

Big Hero 6 opens in cinemas on Thursday, November 6

Published: November 4, 2014 04:00 AM


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