Very often when we leave the cinema fresh off the heels of watching a good blockbuster, we are immersed in the emotions and satisfaction of it. Even as a nitpicker, I do have films where I enter with the intention of analysing it through and through, but it might win me over and helps hang my critical faculties at the entrance.
However, once the hype has faded, and our heads are cooled, do these films still hold up?
For this year's Oscars, the award for Best Animated Feature went to Big Hero 6, which really surprised me because I believed How To Train Your Dragon 2 was the superior film. At first I did remember enjoying Big Hero 6 more than Dragon 2 in the theatres (though I never got around to writing the review for BH6), yet I felt like the award was mis-attributed because I thought the latter was more deserving. So this prompted me to re-watch both these films back to back and see if they are as good as I remembered them, and most importantly, which one is better.
In terms of entertainment value, I think Big Hero 6 has a small edge over Dragon 2 simply because it is updated. They make science and technology cool and awesome, which in turn might encourage kids to go into the professions of health care (assistive) robotics so they can essentially build their own Baymax. For this reason, in a few decades' time Big Hero 6 may become dated, especially once 3D printers and personal care robots do become more commonplace, whilst Dragon 2 is embedded in lore and fantasy, so it is more likely to remain timeless.
In the heat of the moment however, people generally like films that are relevant. They like films that use current world events and scientific advancements to paint a plausible future. It generates hope that when we grow up, the world will be even more awesome because of the directions we are taking right now. That to me is a big part of the guilty pleasure with enjoying popcorn films, and Big Hero 6 certainly nails it for our current generation of kids.
(BH6) 1 - 0 (Dragon 2)
An important thing to remember too when analysing these animated features is that their target audience is primarily children and young teenagers. And one of the most important elements they absolutely need to deliver is a good, strong and impactful message. It needs to not only respect children's intelligence, but also help nurture it.
When I saw the first Dragon movie, it had a strong emphasis on friendship and gaining an understanding between different societies (Vikings vs Dragons) rather than eradiation. The second movie took this idea further by exploring how trauma in the past can influence future prejudices, and that forgiveness or reconciliation is more powerful than isolation or hatred. Forgiveness was shown through Hiccup when he doesn't blame Toothless for the death of his father, isolation was shown through both Hiccup's parents attitude towards Drago and Vikings in general, and hatred was shown through Drago himself. Each character encapsulated a different facet of human struggles that both kids and adults can relate to.
What about Big Hero 6? What was the lesson learned? I mean most people's reaction to this film ranges from "It was a lot of fun and action" to "I want my own Baymax". The former only suggests that the director knew how to entertain, but the latter might suggest a tugging of emotional threads. But I don't see how this tugging translates to lesson learned for the kids. Is the message "revenge won't make you feel better about past hurts"? If so I think Dragon 2 illustrated it better.
(BH6) 1 - 1 (Dragon 2)
A big part of Disney movies is the music. Many times we don't remember the storyline of films we watched as children, but certainly remember the music especially if the emotional climax of the film are built on a song. In recent years however, Disney have been alternating between making timeless fairy tale musicals and more modern stories like Wreck-It Ralph and of course Big Hero 6 which don't contain the singalong aspect.
And interestingly, Dreamworks has headed down almost the opposite path. Where they started off telling stories that take place in modern times like Antz, Chicken Run, Madagascar and Bee Movie, now they have two franchises on in legend and lore with Kung Fu Panda, and Dragon 2. The difference is that Dreamworks didn't fully go down the song route with their movies. Instead, they developed musical motifs and styles that really suit the worlds they created.
To be fair, Disney's songs too are often inspired by the cultures they are sung in. Many of the songs in Mulan do use Chinese instruments and follow the pentatonic scale. The music in Princess and the Frog also match the New Orleans setting in which the story takes place. The others, well, hit and miss.
Back to topic. Both Big Hero 6 and Dragon 2 both have no real sing-along songs in the films (there is sort of one in Dragon 2 but it's not catchy). Big Hero 6's music is very situational. It's electric, thrilling, energenic, fast-paced for action scenes, and soft for the touching scenes. While they match the tone of the scene, they are all somewhat generic and forgettable. On the other hand Dragon 2's music is atmospheric, grand, uplifting, and winningly memorable. I mean, right now, if you played a random song from the soundtrack of Big Hero 6, you probably can't tell it's from that film unless you were told it. However, if you played any of the major themes from Dragon 2, it elicits memories of soaring in the skies with the dragons of Burk. And even if you don't, the motifs is hummable, has a sense of the scale of the world, and much more impactful than Big Hero 6.
(BH6) 1 - 2 (Dragon 2)
In terms of individual characters, Baymax in Big Hero 6 wins hands down across both films. Hiro is also a bit stronger a character than Hiccup for two reasons. In the context of the story, Hiccup has already had a film to build up his identity to himself and the audience. However at the start of Dragons 2, he is now the cool kid, a dragon rider and the rightful heir to his village's chieftainship. However, he's still awkward and somewhat lost for the entire film, and while you can say that makes him more realistic since many young awkward kids do stay awkward through their teenhood, I don't think kids appreciated his character as much as they did Hiro.
Hiro was effectively a young version of Tony Stark from Iron Man. He is a genius, cocky and a bit reckless, but also has a big soft heart that just needs a hug. In terms of ending in the film as a role model, Hiccup is probably better, but kids will probably end up wanting to be like Hiro instead.
The side characters are hit and miss for both films. Again Dragons 2 is more successful at reflecting real teenagers in a real community, while Big Hero 6 tends to focus more on stereotypes for comedic effect. Seriously, Hiro's superhero team captures all your skin/gender tokens and personality clich�s. The chemistry between the characters in both films is good and feels mostly natural, so it's hard to compare without going into more details, and I won't.
Dragons 2 also suffers a bit from using the mystery defence for its villain. "We don't have time or any good ideas how to craft a compelling backstory for our main villain, so lets just write it so that even the characters in the film doesn't know who he is either". I'm generally not a fan of a villain I know nothing about, especially if he's not very interesting to begin with. Drago was arguably the weakest point of Dragons 2 because his story is basically the generic villain who is evil and wants to take over the world. That's something you might see from a 90s video game movie, but for a multi-million dollar production in the 2010s, surely you could come up with something a bit more juicy. You knew nothing about him at the start, and not much by the end.
Big Hero 6's villain(s) are not much better, because one is just a corporate jerk, while the other is a "been there, done that" good man driven mad by loss. They're lazy character constructs, but at least their backstories and motivations are somewhat more complete by the end of the film. Drago just grunts and leaves with his Alpha dragon after failing to conquer Burk.
But like I said at the start, Baymax does steal the show for kids and for me. His personality may just be from software, but it is software that was coded with love, and it really shines through in how everyone has reacted to him. One more point to Big Hero 6.
(BH6) 2 - 2 (Dragon 2)
So we have two points for Big Hero 6, and two points for Dragon 2. Lets end this debate with the component of film I usually care the most about: story.
Firstly, if I were to nitpick plot details, Big Hero 6 will definitely be the Swiss cheese as it has dozens of major plot holes from start to end. The biggest one to me is the timeline of the "revenge motivation backstory revealed". When did Professor Callaghan lose his daughter into Krei's teleporter? Was it before or after the fire at the science expo? If it was before the science expo, then how come he was so composed when Krei first showed up, but then after the accident decided to plot up this revenge scheme? If it was after the science expo, why did he let people believe he died, and yet shows up to a clearly invite-only military demonstration of the teleporter? Either ways there is something that doesn't add up. And there are about half a dozen more of these plot holes including the technologies of this world.
Dragons 2 had fewer and less serious plot problems. In fact the only one I really can think of after a second viewing is towards the end of the film. After the good Alpha dragon was defeated and Drago takes control of all the dragons and heads to Burk, Hiccup devises a plan to use the baby dragons to fly back to Burk. If the alpha dragon couldn't control the baby dragons because they don't listen to anyone, then how did Hiccup's crew manage to ride those babies back to Burk in almost the same time it took Drago to get there?
On nitpicking alone, I would give the award to Dragon 2 because it was more carefully written. However Big Hero 6 does have a couple more things going for it. Firstly, the pacing was better for kids. It knew exactly how long to linger on emotional scenes and how to very efficiently convey what the characters are thinking with visual cues. No scene is left out or wasted, and every development is important towards the climax of the film. Dragon 2 does feel slightly padded at times and has a couple of pointless scenes just so they can show off more dragons.
However, the biggest differentiator for me between Big Hero 6 and Dragon 2 is the starting point of both stories. Big Hero 6 had the freedom of starting however way they wanted because it was an origins story. The audience have yet to be acquainted with this world you are setting up, and so you have a free pass to be creative. Dragon 2 is a sequel, and not only that, a sequel to what felt like a very self-contained story with a satisfying resolution. So their creative options will not only be limited, but also heavily benchmarked against the original film which was already pretty good.
Not only did Dragon 2 deliver as a superior follow-up film, they matured it. This film was a story about life. Not just growing up, but growing up together. Big Hero 6, as fun and well executed as the film is, was a story about people doing stuff. There is a small sense of artificiality in BH6, where the characters in this film are fun to laugh at, but aren't fully treated as people. They are merely exploited as archetypes of modern literature to convey stages of emotions in a coming of age person.
With that said, I believe the story of Dragon 2 leaves a far greater impact because within the 2 hours you feel like you've somehow watched and grew up with its characters from the first movie. Big Hero 6 is just a roller coaster ride of adrenaline and a couple of warm moments that feel like a Hallmark card. It is fun that leaves you in a good mood, but it doesn't help shape your appreciation of people in your real life. Dragon 2 did that for kids, and for this and the aforementioned reasons, I declare it a better film than Big Hero 6, and should have won the award for Best Animated feature.
P.S. I didn't include Big Hero 6 in the top 10 films of 2014 that I saw, because I saw it early this year. If it were on the list I would've probably placed it just above Interstellar. It's still a great movie, and I want my Baymax ASAP!