I had the good fortune to see Big Hero 6 and I recommend you see it if you haven’t. Now, although this isn’t well advertised, the movie is actually based off of a Marvel Comics series of the same name (most people will figure that one out if they notice the Stan Lee cameo or stay until the credits roll). So this got me thinking about reinterpretations, which is a step farther than adaptation. I have some strong feelings about adaptation and how far that can be taken until the character/story are no longer the same. Reinterpretation is trying to place the story/characters into a different setting. The movie Clueless is an adaptation of the novel Emma but it’s also a reinterpretation since it places the lead character in modern L.A. and gives her a sassy best friend and a couple of subplots that weren’t in the book. And it absolutely works. So here are my not-quite-organized thoughts based on three recent movies (there may be spoilers, but I’ll try not to).
Big Hero 6. I’m not an expert on the original comic, but this seems like a good reinterpretation of those characters. So much so in fact that the character credit goes to “Man of Action” instead of the original comic book artists (I’m not entirely keen on that). The setting is a slightly futuristic modern world in a city that’s a literal mash-up between San Francisco and Tokyo. The character designs are somewhat ethnically diverse. In this case, all the team’s powers come from technology which simplifies a lot. The main family member that drives Hiro to be well, a hero, has been changed from the comics, but from a storytelling perspective, I understand the reasons why and the emotional impact is still intense. Overall, the reinterpretation works and is made better by the fact Disney finally figured out how to make Pixar movies.
Universal Studios, unlike WB/DC, has watched Disney/Marvel Studios make all the money and decided to copy the format of a cinematic universe and paste their own characters into it. In this case those characters are the classic Universal monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the werewolf, etc. This isn’t a wholly bad idea. Universal already tried in the ’90s with the excellent The Mummy and not-so-good but enjoyable The Mummy Returns. In my mind, these were worthy entries into the Universal universe. Universal liked those so much they gave the same writer (if I recall) permission to use their other monsters. The big problem was that for some reason all the monsters were shoved into the same movie which was an expensive flop.
Universal has decided to start all over using the MCU template and started with a reinterpretation of what is apparently meant to be the anchor of the presumed franchise, Dracula. Okay, fair enough. Dracula and vampires are very common in pop culture and have been reinterpreted many times over the years. Sometimes this has very bad, if popular, results, and I have complained at the trend of turning soulless monsters into emo bad boy with a mild blood fetish. So what does Dracula: Untold do for Dracula? Turns him into an emo bad boy (albeit with rather more than a mild blood fetish). Of all the vampires in all the world… ugh. Dracula is supposed to be a villain! There is no reason to turn him into some kind of repentant anti-hero.
Yes, I am advocating for a villain with no more real motivation than “for the evulz.” Sometimes that’s absolutely appropriate, and I think very much so in the case of Dracula. Sure, make him the centerpiece of the franchise. There’s nothing wrong with the villain being the star. All the other movies could center around him somehow making the other monsters or making them into his enemies and the final crossover confrontation would be the good monsters vs. the irredeemable evil. Seriously, how hard is this?
I am no fan of the 1959 movie Sleeping Beauty. However, that movie does feature my favorite Disney villain of all time – Maleficient. Hell, even her name means “evil.” Disney was not subtle at all. But they were also adapting a fairy tale, and fairy tales are simple stories with a very black and white morality. Princess = good, stepmother = evil incarnate. Also, there’s a lot more mutilation in most of them. Anyway, as Disney’s adaptations go, they removed most of the brutality and left the simple story and clear moral sides. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a good thing, but it’s difficult to subvert a story that’s so short and simple. I’m not sure it’s even necessary to try to subvert or mature the story (which Disney kind of already did anyway with Enchanted). Disney decided since villains are awesome to give their best villain a live-action starring role in a reinterpretation/subversion. The one good thing I will say about this movie is that the three fairies were portrayed to be about as idiotic as I suspected they must have been based on the 1959 movie. Okay, I’ll also throw in the lead actress’s performance. Her cheekbones did their best, all things considered.
But overall this is a giant, steaming mess of a movie. Disney completely missed the point that Maleficent is supposed to be EVIL. Yes, she is another villain who’s does bad things for the evulz. It’s her name! I don’t care about her back story. I don’t want to see her redeemed. I want to see her turn into a giant dragon and try her damnest to kill the hero and princess. In essence, this movie committed the same sin of reinterpretation as did “Dracula” above by trying to turn a villain into an anti-hero. But why is this ugly? Well, mainstream Western entertainment by and large is very bad at creating female heroes (putting aside the fact Maleficient isn’t supposed to be a hero). In fact, it seems there is only one kind of back story a female character can have – brutalization. Male heroes tend to be defined by the violence done to the people in their lives, and female heroes tend to be defined by the violence done to them. Here, Maleficient is drugged and has her wings cut off by the man she loved, so in addition to the unsubtle rape metaphor (so common it’s a trope), her motivation is reduced to nothing more than “a woman scorned.” And for all that effort to make Maleficent a complex character, the movie still ended up with an antagonist whose motivation is pretty much “for the evulz.”
Sorry this one ended on such a bummer note. So, um, go see Big Hero 6. It’s good. Sit through the credits for the extra Stan Lee cameo.