One year after the global phenomenon that was Frozen, it would be foolish to expect Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Big Hero 6 to match the heights the aforementioned classic soared to with shocking ease. And yet, Big Hero 6 carves its own special place in the Disney canon, namely presenting itself as one of the first postmodern animated films on file. When it comes to its established world, Big Hero 6 — an adaptation of a Marvel comic book series from the 1990s — is the animated equivalent of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner: its central setting of San Fransokyo is a mash-up of two of the biggest hubs of civilization in the world, Tokyo and San Francisco, merged here as a post-racial utopia brimming with diverse minds and backgrounds. In San Fransokyo, state-of-the-art technology and robotics are as commonplace as drinking fountains and metro stations. But don’t let the pretty, innovative visuals lull you into believing all is swell and chaos-free. Big Hero 6 demonstrates that just because the future seems progressive doesn’t mean bad habits of the past die off — young nerds may rule the world but old men still find a way to destabilize the peace.
Don Hall and Chris Williams’ Big Hero 6 offers big action and even bigger emotion, though the film does stumble a bit in execution, namely in covering superhero and villain terrain that many blockbusters have already driven their tires over countless times before. After the breath of fresh air that was this summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Big Hero 6 offers similar action thrills and character camaraderie yet the results feel a tad underwhelming, the fun perhaps a bit diluted thanks to GotG and Marvel’s other prior helpings. I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest Big Hero 6 is Marvel’s year-end leftovers, but I do acknowledge a legitimate argument can be made for such harshness. However, when it focuses on relationships and “origin story” character development, Big Hero 6 maintains a strong footing on our heartstrings. Protagonists Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) and Baymax (Scott Adsit) have an unforgettable bond, while underrated actor Daniel Henney delivers Oscar-caliber voice work as Hiro’s altruistic older brother, Tadashi.
Before prepubescent Hiro meets the man, the myth, the Baymax, he spends his nights participating in the illegal underground sport of robot cockfighting. Challenging gamblers more than twice as old and big, Hiro shows zero ounce of fear as his little gizmo wins fight after fight against robots with better upgrades and flashier digs. Money isn’t what Hiro’s after – he’s looking to establish a reputation as one of the great robotic minds throughout San Fransokyo. Wanting only what’s best for him, Tadashi and Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph) suggest Hiro enroll in Tadashi’s engineering university — referred to jokingly as “Nerd School” — which conveniently has no age restriction and selects its students following a public demonstration of their respective talents.
Hiro at first is resistant…until he visits the school and meets four colleagues of Tadashi’s who will soon become a part of his hero squad. First up is Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.), a rule-follower and general safety enthusiast. Once he wields his sword-gloves, however, Wasabi losers his jitters and is virtually unstoppable on the battlefield. Next is Go Go Tomago (Jamie Chung), a no-nonsense realist who balances unwavering loyalty with a smart read of every situation she and the “Big Hero 6” team encounter. Go Go’s superpower function is outrunning her opponents via robotic figure skates that can grace the top of any surface with ease. Less impressive than either of them is the archetypical “Nerdy Hot Girl,” Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), who carries a purse containing absorbent, gooey material that cushions a fall or makes for a sticky trap. Yeah…Honey Lemon’s “ability” is unsurprisingly lame and stereotypical, but what else is new in the world of male-driven Hollywood? With a name and superpower like that, you’d think Honey Lemon was created by Ian Fleming.
The guy financing the “super” group is the school’s mascot, Fred (T.J. Miller), a beanie-wearing stoner type who is a coincidental dead ringer for Big Brother 16’s Hayden Voss. I was expecting the typical stoner/surfer lingo shtick, but was surprised by how layered this character is, not to mention he’s one of the rare comedic reliefs of late that you don’t secretly despise. Miller colors Fred with warm humor and loyal enthusiasm to the cause, never allowing him to overstay his welcome like so many other superhero films do with their jokester sidekicks.
Let’s not tip-toe around the genius of the film any longer: Baymax, Tadashi’s healthcare physician robot who looks like the love child of the Pillsbury Doughboy and the Michelin Man. It’s difficult to gauge how responsible Scott Adsit is for Baymax’s unintentionally hilarious demeanor (I’m sure there was vocal manipulation at play), but the end result is perhaps the biggest and greatest takeaway from Big Hero 6. Baymax may be guided by his mandate and programming, but that doesn’t mean he lacks a conscience or rational mind. He centers Hiro when rage drowns out the young boy’s decision-making skills; he provides physical, mental and spiritual therapy; his willingness to be better than his programming is a virtuous trait that doesn’t even exist among most humans. Baymax is a treasure of a character – he’s our source of laughter, sadness, happiness and every shade of emotion in-between. Toy merchandisers are going to have a field day with his action figure, but deep down we all know he is worth every penny. Anyone who didn’t laugh in joyous rapture each time Baymax attempted a fist bump needs a heart monitor. Even Baymax’s clumsy physicality deserves its own special award – hats off to the animation department for pushing the limits of computer graphic imagery, the likes of which Pixar wouldn’t even dare attempt.
I’m not even going to even to touch on the villains of this movie, played by James Cromwell and Alan Tudyk, lest I spoil anything. All I can say is that Marvel has yet to solve their villain problem. Once again we have two bad guys with hackneyed motivations and zero payoffs. In fact, the last fifteen minutes of Big Hero 6 should have been cut altogether. It offers nothing but a climactic repeat of Guardians of the Galaxy’s final moments, which in turn cheapens the drama and undermines the intelligence of its audience. You’ll see what I mean when you watch the film.
In sum, Big Hero 6 has its emotions in check but can’t quite surpass the shortcomings of the Marvel brand, even with Disney-esque themes attached. Every narrative and character beat is easily spotted ahead of time, and the screenplay by Robert L. Baird, Don Gerson and Jordan Roberts lacks both the shrewdness and storytelling timelessness of Disney’s greatest, certainly much less than recent efforts Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph. Visually stellar, superbly acted, and featuring a character guaranteed to transform into a Disney icon overnight, Big Hero 6 is a flashy, crowd-pleasing superhero flick with the right amount of feeling yet not enough creative impact. When it comes to animation in 2014, Big Hero 6 is the bronze to How to Train Your Dragon 2 and The Lego Movie’s respective silver and gold medals.
Disney’s Big Hero 6 opens nationwide this Friday, November 7th. Have a look at the trailer below!