‘Big Hero 6′ shows that an Asian American cast can top the box office

Big Hero 6 stars (L to R): Hiro Hamada, Baymax & GoGo Tomago. Source: disney.wikia.com

Smithsonian Asian Pacific American:

 

This past weekend’s box office numbers are in, and Disney’s latest project Big Hero 6 stands soundly on top. This might not come as a big surprise, considering that Frozen-fever is still holding every auntie’s TV hostage – but the film still breaks ground, especially in the scope of Asian Americans in cinema. And Hollywood should take note.

 

Daneil Henney (left) and Ryan Potter (right), co-stars of Big Hero 6. Source: sanfransokyo-bae.tumblr.com (yes, that's a real URL)

Daniel Henney (left) and Ryan Potter (right), co-stars of Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6 is a robotic sci-fi tale that revolves around Hiro Hamada,  Disney’s first explicitly mixed-heritage protagonist. Hamada is voiced by Ryan Potter, who is of Japanese and Caucasian descent himself. In fact, the entire film is placed in a “Hapa environment” of sorts, set in San Fransokyo, an architectural and cultural hybrid of the cities the name references.

Casting Asian Americans isn’t new to Disney, whose Mulan in 1998 was voiced by Ming-Na Wen, BD Wong and George Takei, among others.  Still, the studio has been inconsistent when it comes to this matter – the lead role in Lilo & Stitch wasn’t voiced by a Hawaiian (or an Asian Pacific American, for that matter), and we’d have to go as far back as Aladdin or even The Jungle Book to locate another Disney animation starring characters from a broader Asian origin (let’s pretend the Siamese Cats from Lady and the Tramp never happened).

Among those mentioned films, the only voice actor of Asian descent was Lea Salonga for Princess Jasmine’s singing parts. So while Big Hero 6 is a fictitious metropolis which never reveals what country it’s actually in, its cultural mash-up of settings, characters and themes means it could very well be Disney’s first Asian/American film that actually stars Asian American actors.

Hollywood’s reputation for placing white actors in Asian roles is a tale as old as time – from Goku in Dragonball: Evolution to Aang in The Last Airbender, glossing over the past century of Asian roles in American film would show little progress since Paul Muni and Luise Rainer donned yellowface in 1937’s The Good Earth. The track record for animation hasn’t been fantastic either, with white actors playing the lead roles in both Avatar series’ and the English dubs for Dragonball Z and Pokemon (I just ruined my childhood going through those links, BTW. You’re welcome).

 

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’m not the only one who has been griped by this cinematic phenomenon. When 2010’s The Last Airbender revealed an all-white cast (minus Dev Patel as the villain, of course), it caused such an uproar that an entire website called Racebending was launched against the production, and multiple petitions continue to call for a reboot of the franchise. Director M. Night Shyamalan, who’s Indian American himself, seemed aloof about the matter, insisting that the diversity of the cast and crew was on par with the United Nations. Those who have tried to actually find logic in prioritizing white actors in these roles have eluded to Asian and Asian American actors having less audience appeal than white actors, despite the fact that these films have failed among critics and fans alike.

Enter Big Hero 6, adapted from an obscure Marvel series about a Japanese counterpart to the Avengers. Unlike other Marvel titles like X-Men – which has an existing fanbase, or other Disney films like Maleficent – which is based on a childhood classic, Big Hero 6 relies on Disney’s promotion engine and, more importantly, its characters and storyline. Merely being a Disney film hasn’t always been a shoe-in (anyone watching The Rescuers: Down Under tonight?), but critics and audiences have been singing this one’s praises since it opened at the Tokyo International Film Festival late last month.

 

A night view of San Fransokyo, the make-believe home of the Big Hero 6. Source: disney.wikia.com

 

Debuting an awesome cartoon about Asians in the land known for cranking out awesome cartoons about Asians is a tough job for anyone, but Big Hero 6‘s ability to exhibit cultural tropes between America and Japan without being overly cheesy or offensive was impressive even to a cinema Grinch like me. Sure, I scoffed a bit at the pagoda-topped Golden Gate Bridge, but I also couldn’t help but feel validated to hear someone on the big screen say “red bean paste” as casually as one would say “hot dog.” The cast is diverse enough to make me suspect at least one member of the talent scout was a former member of the Third World Liberation Front – Potter, along with Daniel Henney, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans, Jr. and Génesis Rodríguez make T.J. Miller and Scott Adsit’s roles the only two not filled by an actor of color.

 

"Big Hero 6" © 2014 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

 

I must say that I left the film with a bittersweet feeling, as I was disappointed when I didn’t see any Asian American names in the credits among the top-level crew – this is a testament to the fact that much progress is yet to be made. But where Big Hero 6 does succeed is that it actually tried what many of us knew would work all along – make characters that reflect the audience, and hire actors who reflect those characters. So if anyone else in Hollywood is still wondering if our audiences are ready to see more Asian Pacific Americans in the big screen, I’ll leave you with yet another box office dominator:

therock

 

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Nine celebrities who you probably didn’t know voiced anime…

9) Jonathan Winters

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It was only recently that this supremely gifted and absolutely mercurial improv comedian passed away. If you’re in your 20s or 30s, you know him as the voice of Papa Smurf in that lousy Neil Patrick Harris movie from a couple of years ago. Go back a bit farther, and you’ll recall major roles in TV fare like Davis Rules and Mork and Mindy.

Jonathan Winters was also always a prolific voice actor; he had recurring roles in a number of network cartoons. Amusingly, while kids know him only as Papa Smurf, he was Grandpa Smurf in the ’80s ABC cartoon. But let’s go back, way way back, to the year 1961, a producer named Roger Corman, a studio called American International Pictures, and a film named Alakazam the GreatAlakazam, nee Saiyuki, is an early version of the famous “monkey king” saga that everything from Spaceketeers to Dragonball Z is based on; it was one of the first anime productions dubbed into English, and for its time, it had something of a star-studded cast – along with Winters, fellow comic Arnold Stang (who’d soon become the voice of Hanna Barbera’s famous Topcat) headlined, with songs provided by chart-toppers Frankie Avalon and Dodie Stevens. Interestingly, an entirely uncredited Peter Fernandez (the once and future voice of Speed Racer) played the speaking role of Alakazam – according to him, Winters, true to form, ad-libbed pretty much all of his dialogue as the gluttonous, shape-shifting pig, Quigley. My favorite bit? When the character, slavering over a plate of food, pauses – and Winters’ voice remarks, with a touch of reproach, “I never touch pork! You understand.”

8) Peter Ustinov

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Most of you know Peter Ustinov‘s work. But I’m betting that a large portion know him best from his turn as Prince John in the Disney furry animal Robin Hood flick. Now granted, he was awesome in that crummy movie; easily the best part about it. But man, that’s just scratching the surface of how illustrious this guy was. Not only was he a gifted actor, who won not one but two Academy Awards for best supporting actor (in 1961’s Spartacus and 1965’s Topkapi), but he was also a writer, playwright, stage designer, filmmaker, columnist and goddamn diplomat.

But how did the great Peter Ustinov’s career intersect with Japanese animation? Well, Ustinov was a raconteur who was up for just about anything, and so was a businessman from Japan named Shintaro Tsuji. Tsuji’s greeting card company had experienced phenomenal success throughout the 70s thanks to their new mascot, Hello Kitty – yep, I’m talking about the founder and chairman of Sanrio, here – and one of his many successful side ventures was a stint producing animated films. Lots of them were great – fare like Sea Prince and the Fire Child and Unico, movies which look great even today. But Tsuji wanted to make Sanrio’s movies global hits, and he tried to address this by moving the entire animation production team of one particular film, Orpheus of the Stars, to Hollywood.

And so it came to pass that a small team of ace Japanese animators worked together with a small army of Hollywood’s best cartoon talent to create Metamorphoses, a pop/rock retelling of some of Ovid’s stories meant to be something like an answer to Fantasia. But the movie tested poorly, was edited and tweaked, and eventually hit theaters under the title Winds of Change. There’s very little voice work to speak of in the movie, but narration is needed – so it’s provided by one Peter Ustinov. He acquits himself well and is lots of fun to listen to, but his engaging patter is so much better than the actual film, which is pretty but kind of incoherent, that it just gets distracting. Ustinov also provided his voice for Sanrio’s film The Mouse and His Child, but that movie was actually produced and directed entirely by westerners, so it ain’t exactly anime.

7) Lorne Greene

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He’s been gone now for quite a while, but for fourteen seasons back in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, Lorne Greene was a household name thanks to his role as Ben Cartwright in the beloved western TV series Bonanza. He’d previously been a newsreader, but the role of Ben cemented him as one of the great TV dads, right up there with Bill Cosby and Dick van Patten.

It was probably that magnificent voice that landed Greene the title role in The Wizard of Oz, a 1982 theatrical film from Toho that was shown to American audiences first on cable TV, and then on video. It’s actually a decent little movie, a bit more faithful to L. Frank Baum’s original story than the famed Judy Garland film, despite the surprisingly blonde Dorothy. Greene, as the Wizard himself, sounds weirdly confident and paternal given the character’s background as an easily spooked con man, but it’s still interesting to hear him. Two other bits of trivia: Dorothy is played by Aileen Quinn, the stage and screen actress most well-known for playing Annie in the 1982 movie musical, and you shouldn’t confuse this Wizard of Oz anime movie with the Wizard of Oz anime TV series, which was narrated by Margot “O.G. Lois Lane” Kidder and ran on HBO.

6) Adrienne Barbeau

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At the peak of her career, Adrienne Barbeau was the “it” girl who parlayed a supporting role in the sitcom Maude into headlining gigs in a broad range of TV movies, horror flicks, and genre cinema. I particularly like her roles in The Fog and Escape from New York. But there are two interesting things about Barbeau – first of all, while her career has had peaks and valleys, she’s still actually quite busy and popular. She played Ruthie in the well-regarded HBO series Carnivale, and only recently wrapped a two-season stint on soap opera mainstay General Hospital. Secondly, Barbeau is a bit like Mark Hamill – she’s long had an interest in voice-acting, and like Hamill, performed especially well in the ’90s Batman cartoon (she was Catwoman in that one).

But where does her career intersect with anime? In 1987, the famous Hanna-Barbera animation studio teamed up with Tsubaraya Productions, the guys who brought the world the live-action Japanese SF classic Ultraman, in order to create an Ultraman that could be marketed all around the world. The resulting 90-minute film features not one but THREE Ultramen, a team of crack pilots who can all turn into towering, silver and red, bug-eyed defenders of justice when the situation calls for it. Adrienne Barbeau provides the voice of Beth O’Brien, the one lady Ultraman. But Ultraman: The Adventure Begins (simply known as Ultraman USA in Japan) never made it past the pilot phase.

5) Jean Reno

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These days, Studio Ghibli dubs are always star-studded affairs. Starting with Princess Mononoke, the films of Miyazaki, Takahata, and their compatriots have boasted the likes of Claire Danes, Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, and of course, The Shield‘s Michael Chiklis. But Ghibli was a worldwide brand for years before they broke big stateside, and other countries sometimes made the leap of using celebrity voice talent to fill the roster. In France, for example, the titular Porco Rosso, ex-WWI ace Marco Pagot, is played by none other than Jean Reno.

Jean Reno is something of a celebrity treasure in Japan, where he’s recently appeared in a series of goddamn amazing commercials where he sulks and wears a Doraemon costume. The incomparable Shinichiro Moriyama voices Marco in the original, and while Michael Keaton does a good job in the U.S. dub, there’s something charmingly rough and naturalistic about Reno’s French performance.

4) David Hayter

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David Hayter is an A-list Hollywood screenwriter and script doctor; not only did he handle screenwriting duties for the first two X-Men movies, he’s also lent his talent to Zack Snyder’s Watchmen film and that weird Mummy spinoff, Scorpion King. He’s got a suspense thriller called Caught Stealing in the works, and has also been showing off his own writer/director project, Wolves, which is finished but not quite ready for prime time.

But even before he blew up as a scribe, David Hayter was his own kind of weird nerd celebrity, shooting to notoriety as the voice of Solid Snake in Konami‘s many Metal Gear Solid games. The character is iconic, and his performance has been reliably excellent throughout the series. Before that, he was an anime voice actor. His most notable roles were probably as lovable thief Lupin the 3rd in the Manga Entertainment dub of Miyazaki’s The Castle of Cagliostro (a previous dubbed version employed Bob Bergen, the usual voice of Porky Pig these days, as the character. How about that?) and as bishonen heartthrob Tamahome in Fushigi Yuugi. Nowadays, Hayter sometimes exercises considerable influence over movies with eight and nine-figure budgets, but he used to play the dopey kid in Moldiver.

3) Kiefer Sutherland

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In 1997, Kiefer Sutherland‘s star was kinda-sorta on the wane. His last big hit, Disney’s Three Musketeers, was a crowded affair, and since then he’d motored along in fair-to-middling flicks like The Cowboy Way and Eye for an Eye. I guess this made it relatively easy for Pioneer LDC, the guys who were publishing hits like Tenchi Muyo! at the time, to sign him up as one of the leads for Armitage III: Poly-Matrix, a high-shine redux of one of their direct-to-video properties. With Sutherland played against the somewhat infamous Elizabeth Berkley (she of Saved by the Bell and Showgirls) as the title character, his billing gave the Armitage III film some surprising and welcome star power. Hollywood actors in Japanese animation are rare in any case, but it was particularly rare in ’97.

Sutherland would permanently establish himself as a household name with 24, but it’s neat to experience this role from just a few years prior.

2) Bryan Cranston

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Before Malcolm in the Middle and way before his Emmy-winning turn as Walter White on Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston used to do anime voices. He’d often use the pseudonym “Lee Stone,” and for the most part, he did walla and small, one-episode roles. He did some voice work for Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, which he mentioned on a Reddit AMA a while back. But he did have a few significant roles dubbing anime into English – he was Matti, one of the slacker would-be astronauts in GANAX’s classic Royal Space Force. He was Condor Joe in Eagle Riders, Saban‘s unsuccessful attempt to turn Gatchaman II into something worth watching. And best of all, he was Isamu Dyson, protagonist of Macross Plus, certainly one of the best anime shows of the 1990s and arguably one of the best ever.

Years and years later, he’s a huge Hollywood star – and he’s still pretty good at voice-acting, as the Batman: Year One OVA demonstrates.

1) Orson Welles

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 Orson Welles is, to this day, one of the greatest screen actors of all time, as well as a gifted auteur director who brought us the singular classic Citizen Kane, and numerous other great films like The Magnificent AmbersonsA Touch of Evil and The Stranger.

But Welles did some voice-acting. He voiced the trailers for the original Star Trek movie. He played the narrator and the evil snake Nag in Chuck Jones’ TV special of Rudyard Kipling’s Rikki-Tikki Tavi. You’re probably kind of expecting me to talk a lot about his turn as Unicron in Transformers: The Movie, one of his last roles, but that was actually developed in the US – only the animation gruntwork and some of the designs were outsourced to Japan. The scripts, storyboards, and other stuff were drawn up here. However, Welles did star in a single anime feature film – a 1981 movie called The Adventures of Glicko. It was dubbed into English under the title The Enchanted Journey. In this children’s tale of a curious city chipmunk going back to nature, Welles played the role of Pippo the pigeon.

Welles took every job in stride, and Enchanted Journey was no exception.  Shortly after production of this movie wrapped, Welles died of a heart attack.

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Nine celebrities who you probably didn’t know voiced anime…