‘Big Hero 6’ may turn out to be one of the year’s biggest unexpected hits

Early Wednesday morning, John Lasseter stood in front of a small group of journalists in a theater in the animation building on the Disney lot to introduce a presentation about November's new animated release, “Big Hero 6,” and it felt to me, after over a decade of attending events where Lasseter has spoken, like a bit of a victory lap.

And why not? Since “Bolt,” Disney Feature Animation has been slowly but surely rebuilding what was a tarnished brand into something that is every bit as strong as the strongest moments from the “Mermaid” through “Lion King” era. “Frozen” was a global smash hit, and more than that, it managed that elusive cultural penetration where it goes beyond being successful and simply becomes omnipresent. “Frozen” was everywhere. Everyone knew what it was. Considering how dark things were for the studio before it was re-organized from within, it's amazing to see the energy that everyone has there now.

One of the reasons that things have turned around for the studio is because Lasseter imposed the same sort of creative structure that they have in place at Pixar, shaking up the way things had been done at the studio since the days of Walt. When Jeffrey Katzenberg was at the studio, much was made of the process and his place in it, and every animator I ever spoke with privately would talk about how much it bugged them to see Katzenberg treated like the key creative force behind the studio's hits. With the Pixar way of doing things, there is an emphasis on how the group can make things better instead of an emphasis on any one person as the savior of a project. By embracing this, and by bringing in several of the other key tenets of the way Pixar does things, Disney has been revitalized.

One of the things that happens now at the studio is that directors who are working on films for the studio are approached as their projects are winding down and asked to come up with three ideas that they want to pursue. They bring those three ideas into a room to meet, and they have to be sure that these are all ideas that they would want to throw themselves into. Lasseter talks about how important it is not to put all of your emotional eggs into one creative basket, knowing how things happen. “Big Hero 6” was born in the period where Don Hall was wrapping up work on “Winnie The Pooh,” and it sounds like it began with a simple question that was asked endlessly online when Marvel was purchased by Disney.

“Can we work with Marvel properties and make movies in the Marvel universe?”

Hall, a fanboy since childhood, was the first one to ask officially, and Lasseter told him that Bob Iger had indeed suggested that Marvel was a resource to be utilized. That started Hall down a rabbit hole of research as he started looking up characters both famous and obscure. It was in one strange corner of the X-Men universe that he first stumbled across “Big Hero 6,” a book that existed for a hot second back in the late '90s and that attempted a comeback about six years ago. Sunfire and Silver Samurai were both part of the launch of the book, but are obviously tied up in Fox's overall X-Men deal. It was a later line-up that was used by Hall and Chris Williams in their film, and even though the names match, that's about all that readers of the book will recognize. Even the relationship that appears to be the core of this new film is something that was largely imagined for the movie.

It's also the thing that got Lasseter to say yes to the movie. “The simple story of this young guy who is a young prodigy genius in robotics who has a great relationship with his brother, but his brother dies early on. The robot that his brother left behind then becomes his surrogate brother who helps him grow and mature, and that's what got us all excited.”

Didn't know that's what it was about? Before today, I'll be honest… I didn't know much about the movie at all. I'd seen the first very cute trailer with Baymax, the big white robot, and the kid. Beyond that, I knew about the Marvel connection, but I've never seen an issue of the book, and I had no idea what it was about. Today's presentation is the first time I knew about the X-Men connection.

One thing they wanted to make clear today, though, is that this really isn't a superhero movie. “It's a supernerd movie,” Lasseter explained. “No one has super powers. They have their brains, and they have technology, and that's what they use to save the day.”

It's a Marvel movie in the sense that the source material was originally published by Marvel, but this wasn't produced by the same team who have been working on the live-action Marvel movies. Instead, they met with Williams and Hall and made it clear that they fully expected to see the material adapted so that the end result will be a Walt Disney Feature Animation movie. And the fact that the studio finally seems to have a real handle on what that means is the reason the films are connecting with audiences.

Lasseter said that when he and Ed Catmull came to the studio, their first priority was to work with the studio to produce a hit. Duh, right? But it wasn't about the economics of it. Instead, they recognized that this talent pool needed to have a number of films work so that they would get their confidence up. Looking at the run they've been on lately, with “Tangled” and “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Frozen,” they've been crushing it. They're making movies with a distinct voice, and they're riffing off their own legacy in the process. They keep pushing animation forward technically in different ways, some that audiences notice, some that they don't.

“Here's how you know morale is good. When someone finishes working harder than they've ever worked on something and they wrap a movie and they say, 'What's next?'” Lasseter detailed the entire process for the reporters assembled this morning, talking about what they call the Brain Trust or the Story Trust. That's the group of 20 people, made up of directors, screenwriters, and the heads of story, who get together every three months to watch the story reels on every project. They do a two or three hour note session for each project, and within that room, it doesn't matter whose idea something is. It's all just about trying to make every project work as well as it possibly can.

“My partner Andrew Stanton has a saying: be wrong as fast as you can.” Lasseter said that no one's notes are more important than anyone else's notes. Lasseter doesn't have a veto, for example, where he can just unilaterally force something on a filmmaker creatively. Instead, the notes are given to the filmmaker, who takes them away and digests them and reacts to them.

Lasseter explained that they haven't considered any other Marvel properties at all yet. When they approached Marvel about this one, Marvel didn't even know they owned it at first.

That bit of information seemed like an appropriate moment to hand things off from Lasseter to co-directors Chris Williams and Don Hall. Hall began detailing his search through the history of Marvel characters as the covers to the six-issue mini-series were shown on the screen behind him. “We kept the title. We kept the character names. Everything else…” Hall looked over at Williams as he said this, and Williams laughed.

They explained that they wanted to create a city for the film so that they could set it up as a playground for all the things they wanted to do in the story. To that end, they developed San FranSokyo, and it's exactly what it sounds like. They took Toyko and San Francisco, both very visually specific cities, and they mashed them up into something very dense.

Do you remember this very early bit of footage?

That was one of the first camera tests they did for the film, and it was a chance to just try to establish a visual palette for the world of Hiro Hamada.

In the movie, Hiro is voiced by Ryan Potter. He's a ridiculously smart kid who graduated high school at 13, leaving him plenty of time to get in trouble. He's involved in illegal back-alley bot fighting, and he has an older brother named Tadashi (Daniel Henney) who he idolizes. They live with their Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph), and Tadashi attends school at San Fransokyo Tech, where he's part of the Ito Ishioka Robotics Lab. Hiro wants nothing to do with “nerd college,” until he visits the school and meets some of the other people working out of the lab. There's Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr), doing research into high-frequency lasers. There's Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), a sweet and bubbly chemical genius. GoGo Tomago (Jamie Chung) is a hard-ass little mechanical genius and adrenaline junkie. And, finally, there's Fred, played by TJ Miller, who is a science fanboy, not even an actual student.

Hiro decides he wants to be part of the school, and he wants to actually win the annual Tech Crunch-style competition. The first full sequence they showed us today was the scene where Hiro gets up to give his presentation at the event, unveiling his Microbots. It's not quite nanotech, but it's the same sort of versatile tech, only controlled via a telepathic headband, and when Hiro makes his presentation, he's great. It's a total success. They leave to celebrate…

… and then there's the fire.

Disney movies deal so often with death and the people left behind to cope with it that it would feel weird if they didn't have one of those relationships in this one. To be fair, the comic also apparently dealt with Hiro and how he continues after his mentor figure is killed, but in a different way. Here, Hiro accidentally activates his “personal healthcare companion,” a Nursebot designed by Tadashi and named Baymax.

If you're a parent, go ahead and start setting aside money for Baymax toys once your kids see the movie. Baymax is big and around and soft-looking. He's about as far from the typical robot design as possible, and that was completely intentional. In trying to find a new way to depict a robot onscreen, the directors went to the Carnegie Mellon robotics lab, where they met Chris Atkinson, who was working on “soft robotics.”

They showed us a motion test they did while trying to decide how Baymax would walk, and it was three different walk cycles, side by side, each walk fairly different. “We called these 'toddler,' 'toddler with a full diaper,' and 'baby penguin.” It was baby penguin all the way because they were able to determine that it was the cutest version of the walk, and when you see Baymax moving in the film, that's what you're seeing.

They showed us two more sequences, and the first of them was by far the longest sequence so far. After Tadashi dies in a fire, it is presumed that all of Hiro's Microbots were also destroyed. As a result, when the one remaining Microbot starts going crazy and trying to escape and roll somewhere. Baymax follows it, and then Hiro has no choice but to follow them both. What they find in a seemingly abandoned warehouse sets up the rest of the film, and it looks like they'll have plenty of big action to share.

In addition, they showed a gorgeous scene of Baymax and Hiro sharing their first flight over the city, and another scene where Hiro is working in his lab. We'll see all of this in the finished film on November 7th. Henry Jackman's about to record the score in the next few days. They've done all the final animation, and this new version of Disney has a tank full of racket fuel. Let's see if they can keep this momentum going.

“Big Hero 6” arrives November 7th in theaters everywhere.