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I waited until a short while after Interstellar’s release to put this review up so I can delve deeply into spoiler territory when discussing it (Big Hero 6 remains mostly unspoiled in this review.)  If you’ve already seen the film (or don’t care to), dive right in. If you haven’t yet, here is a capsule […]

I waited until a short while after Interstellar’s release to put this review up so I can delve deeply into spoiler territory when discussing it (Big Hero 6 remains mostly unspoiled in this review.)  If you’ve already seen the film (or don’t care to), dive right in. If you haven’t yet, here is a capsule review: technically impressive, narratively ambitious, emotionally sterile – see it on as large a screen as possible. Enjoy!

By a strange twist of fate, two major releases arrived at the same time this past week with a series of intriguing similarities that come more closely into focus when one considers just how different the end results are. Disney’s latest animated feature Big Hero 6 and the newest dispatch from blockbuster auteur Christopher Nolan Interstellar are both stridently pro-science pictures with a focus on family and forgiveness with striking visual palettes and fully developed senses of wonder. And while in a vacuum I would almost always side with the original vision shepherded by a unique authorial voice, this is a case where the patchwork filmmaking-by-committee approach of Disney Animation Studios (Never Enough Cooks!) has resulted in a more satisfying, emotionally honest blend of family dynamics and scientific exploration. Big Hero 6 does its job much more effectively than Interstellar.

No one will confuse Disney’s modus operandi for that of an auteur in the vein of Robert Bresson or Andrei Tarkovsky. This can often result in an end product that pilfers from various previous sources to craft something inoffensive, and while Big Hero 6 certainly could have fallen prey to such traps, it instead transcends such references and is yet another triumph for the Mouse House. Very loosely based on an obscure Marvel comics property, the film follows precocious young inventor Hiro, whose older brother Tadashi is similarly scientifically inclined but enrolled in school working to better humanity and hopes to set Hiro on a similar path. Hiro is introduced to Tadashi’s life’s work in Baymax, a personal healthcare robot designed to provide care to those he’s in service of. A mysterious accident at a science fair leaves Tadashi dead, Hiro in deep mourning and Baymax in mothballs. A happenstance reactivation finds Hiro and Baymax paired together with the robot acquiescing to seek out Tadashi’s killer in order to heal Hiro’s fragile emotional state. Paired alongside Tadashi’s fellow student inventors, a team is formed to help solve this mystery and save the fair city of San Fransokyo.

Baymax is pretty much the most Disney invention ever, a character whose properties in the film just so happen to dovetail perfectly with those of a stuffed animal on store shelves just in time for the holiday season. But no matter, as crass as his existence might prove to be in our reality his role in this film is perfectly delightful. Everyone surrounding Baymax is pretty charming too, as it’s refreshing to see a team formed around imposing intellects and thirst for knowledge instead of physical ability. The film’s enthusiasm for invention as means of betterment finds its way into every crack and crevice, and this rigorous binding of story to theme helps ensure the film doesn’t lose sight of its goals in the face of spectacular visual invention (of which there’s plenty).

Spectacular visual invention is the name of the game in Interstellar – from our very first moments spent in this near-future vision of Earth that is plagued by dust storms and the failing of crops worldwide (only corn continues to thrive) to our final moments in deep space, Christopher Nolan has crafted an immersive experience not lacking for ambition.  We’re introduced to former astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, desperately providing emotional ballast throughout) and his children Murph and Tom (played as children by Timothee Chalamet and Mackenzie Foy, and in adulthood by Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain) as they attempt to eke out a living as farmers in a rapidly decaying world. A bit of gravitational happenstance leads Murph and Cooper to NSA, who has been working covertly on a Hail Mary attempt to save humanity from impending doom and would love Cooper to join along. Professor Brand (Michael Caine) along with his daughter (Anne Hathaway, given little to work with) have planned a rocket trip through a wormhole on the outskirts of our solar system to see if the previous travelers who went through it have found habitable planets for us to begin again. This mission will separate Cooper from his children possibly forever, and Cooper’s promise to his daughter that they will see each other again is the emotional foundation on which this epic journey is built.

Nolan’s images of space travel are impeccably gorgeous, but instead of generating awe, these sequences have a concussive property that overpowers the imagery with bombast. But even given the excessive audio bombast, the images Nolan crafts here are amongst the finest of his career. There is tactility and texture in these worlds we travel to, an unmistakable sense that they are rooted in reality, and Nolan’s dedication to portraying things in a rigorously factual light is impressive.

If only he could’ve ported over the fidelity with which he covers that world-building and physics to the humanity that’s supposed to comprise Interstellar’s core. That’s really where the trouble lies, it can’t help but reflect the antiseptic viewpoint of its filmmaker despite its attempts at a Spielbergian sort of emotional resonance. Even though this is a film that is ostensibly about humanity transcending its human origins and finding hope in the stars, and is even further grounded by the promise of a father to his daughter that he will return home to her, the movie in broad strokes conveys the same lack of regard for the human race that has dotted the landscapes Nolan has crafted in the past.

And while Interstellar is a film about NASA, scientific endeavor and humanity banding together, Nolan can’t help but engage in this practice once more. Nolan undermines what by its nature should be a rousing story by having his characters constantly betray one another. The emotional beats and characters involved in this story never appear to engage Nolan as much as the technical aspects and narrative construction (a sequence where the ship’s crew debate the merits of their next stop for reasons both emotional and scientific has all the verve of a CSPAN simulcast). The film’s finale, in which McConaughey’s astronaut selflessly sacrifices himself to the giant black hole so the mission can continue, should logically form the film’s emotional apex. And it’s also the backbone of the film’s metaphysics, as the black hole deposits him in a fifth dimension outside of time into his own past allowing him the opportunity to set the entire film’s plot into motion behind the scenes (it should be noted that this whole sequence is visually remarkable, with McConaughey’s character floating in a space equal parts infinity mirror and M.C. Escher while tugging on the multi-colored strands that bind reality together like some sort of quantum Gepetto). But instead of helping us to feel the love that guided Cooper back to his family, it’s just another puzzle to be solved and another example of Christopher Nolan: The Boy with a Rubik Cube Where his Heart Should Be.

One could imagine a Disney-like committee coming to the rescue of Interstellar, using the skeleton of this journey to hang something much more emotionally resonant. While Disney’s process tends to homogenize product and round off rough edges, they find the emotional heart of the story they’re telling and bend all of their film’s space and time around that concept. It’s how a movie far less ambitious in scope like Big Hero 6 ends up outpacing the monolith it’s competing against – by approaching story first and looking at all of the other details as window dressing, they approach their film from an almost inverted perspective when compared to the technical expertise that helps mask narrative inefficiency in Interstellar.  It allows for two films with similar yearnings to end up in such wildly divergent places.