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Big Hero 6

Wow, 2014 has been bad for Pixar.

So far this year, animation fans have been blessed with such offerings as The Lego Movie, How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Book of Life, and The Boxtrolls. Hell, even Mr. Peabody and Sherman had its moments. And what did Pixar bring to the table? An announcement for a Toy Story sequel that absolutely nobody asked for.

This was a sterling year for animation even before anyone from the Mouse House threw their hat into the ring. Yet here’s Disney Animation Studios, the perpetual sibling rival to Pixar, coming off a trio of increasingly great films that culminated in the world-conquering smash called Frozen. Even better, DAS partnered with their new friends at Marvel, another Disney subsidiary that seems to have taken over the world within a few short years.

Thus we have Big Hero 6, the first movie made under the Marvel/Disney partnership that does not take place within the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s also a very obscure comics property that heavily involves some mutant characters still on lease to Fox. Put simply, the folks at DAS had full license to adapt the source material as loosely as necessary to create whatever story they wanted, while still making use of the Marvel brand. Seems like a wasted opportunity to create a new story altogether that Marvel could spin off into a new comics franchise, but what do I know?

The bottom line is that Disney Animation Studios and Marvel are both on top of the world right now. So let’s see what magic they were able to work together.

(Side note: Before I begin, I should put down a few words about Feast, the animated short that precedes the feature. It’s a story comprised of various times when a dog sits down to eat with his human companion. It’s positively astounding how much emotion is conveyed through the simple act of sharing food. Once again, Disney turns in a masterful short work.)

We set our stage in San Fransokyo, and it’s immediately clear that this movie’s independence from continuity is a huge advantage. By name and by nature, the city is a blend of Tokyo with San Francisco, and those two cultures are mixed together with dazzling results. It’s a colorful, futuristic, exquisitely designed science fiction wonderland, the like of which could never be found in the live-action MCU.

Simply by establishing the city, the movie lets us know that we’re going to see some bright and energetic depictions of technology. Then we see a robot battle.

Our main character is Hiro Hamada (yes, our protagonist is actually named “hero,” ha ha), voiced by newcomer Ryan Potter. Hiro is a teenaged robotics prodigy who utilizes his incredible skills to hustle illegal back-alley robot matches. Fortunately, Hiro has a big brother (Tadashi, voiced by Daniel Henney) who guides him toward a better path. It seems that Tadashi is no slouch himself, working and studying robotics alongside a crew of eccentric geniuses at San Fransokyo University.

Tadashi shows Hiro around the university lab and introduces his classmates. GoGo (Jamie Chung) is a speed demon with an attitude problem, but she’s got a good heart underneath it all. Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.) is a control freak whose work with plasma fields is absolutely cutting edge, and I’m not even the least bit sorry for that pun. Then there’s Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), a ditzy chemistry expert who seems to be on a perpetual sugar high. Incidentally, those nicknames all come courtesy of Fred (TJ Miller), a goofball who works as the school mascot.

But of course, the main attraction is Tadashi’s own project: Baymax, voiced by Scott Adsit. The character is based on the actual field of “soft robotics,” in which real-life roboticists are attempting to build robots out of something softer than metal and plastic, primarily for health care purposes. The concept is illustrated by Baymax, whose titanium skeleton sits inside an inflatable vinyl shell. It gives him a round and hugable design, far more distinctive and approachable than your everyday android. As an added bonus, his malleable nature lends itself to plenty of slapstick humor, and his slow movements contrast nicely with the bottomless energy of the other characters.

Anyway, Baymax was designed as a kind of robot nurse, capable of instantly diagnosing and treating just about any illness. More importantly, he was designed to care about human life. Unconditionally. I don’t know if “love” is quite the right word for it, but Baymax is greatly concerned with making sure that everyone is properly cared for. Unfortunately, his skill set is so extremely limited to health care that he doesn’t seem to know much about human culture, psychology, or social protocols. This means that Baymax is often adorably naive with a tendency to take expressions literally. Not only does this make the character humorous in an endearing kind of way, but it allows for some great character development as Baymax takes on the skills and lessons to be a better friend and caretaker for Hiro. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Getting back to the story, Hiro is so taken by his brother’s tour that he immediately sets out to gain admission into San Fransokyo University. He earns his acceptance letter (with some help from Tadashi and his aforementioned friends) by designing a crew of nanobots controlled by a headset. With nothing more than thought, Hiro can direct his nanobots to build and transport just about anything.

Then the university spontaneously combusts. Tadashi goes in to help rescue survivors and he’s never seen or heard from again.

Hiro responds by grieving in isolation away from the outside world. Little did he know that Baymax had been stored in Tadashi’s old room. The robot still functions, and he activates with the relentless determination to treat Hiro’s perceived neurological distress. This turns out to be easier said than done, after we learn that a stranger in a kabuki mask has stolen Hiro’s nanobot design for his own sinister purposes. Baymax rallies Tadashi’s old classmates, who are only too eager to talk with Hiro in their time of mourning, so now they’re caught up in the mess. Thus we have our team of unlikely superheroes.

As I understand it, this origin story is very different from that of the comics, in which Big Hero 6 was basically the Japanese government’s answer to the Avengers. Of course, that’s not the only difference. In the comics, for example, Fred — otherwise known as “Fredzilla” — had the ability to transform into a full-on kaiju. Here, he’s given a monster suit with super strength and fire breath, in keeping with his place as the school mascot. Another great example is Honey Lemon. In the comics, she had a purse that served as a kind of interdimensional portal, such that she could pull pretty much anything out of it. The movie takes the basic concept of a “power purse” and makes it considerably less goofy. I won’t even try to describe how it’s done, because the movie’s visual explanation is so elegant and brilliant that I couldn’t do it justice with words.

The important thing is that the heroes and the villain all have the same superpower: Intelligence. The film seems to delight in making the statement that anyone can change the world and be a positive force for good through the simple act of creation. That sentiment might lose a bit of credibility with the argument that Hiro is an impossibly gifted prodigy, but then the film throws in a great little moment when Hiro is completely stumped for ideas. Even someone as naturally brilliant as Hiro needs to take a step back and put some effort into brainstorming before anything can happen. Hell, the message is right there in the climax when everything is at its darkest: Think creatively and a solution will come.

The central message of making the world a better place through science and technology is a noble one. If nothing else, I love the fact that we now have a film teaching kids that anyone can be a “superhero” and save lives simply by dreaming and building. Of course, Hiro’s plight also lends itself to some wonderful themes about friendship, family, grief, revenge, and so on.

Unfortunately, there’s one considerably huge problem: In an animated kids’ film, screen time is at a premium. So much time is spent establishing the themes and the relationships between characters, and don’t get me wrong, it’s a better film for it. But the tradeoff is that now there’s less screen time for the plot, which now has to be shoehorned into montage after montage after montage. The movie is also heavily dependent on hasty character introductions, cliched shorthand methods, and various plot contrivances (some more clever than others, I’ll admit) to get everything where it needs to be in the right amount of time. The plot feels rushed, and that’s a huge problem in a mystery story like this one is. The villain’s big reveal comes off as weak and predictable, since there wasn’t enough time to properly set it up into something more impressive.

Though come to think of it, TangledWreck-it Ralph, and Frozen all suffered from weak antagonists as well. What’s up with that, DAS?

All of these problems come to a head with the climax. Don’t get me wrong, the action looks great. In fact, the action looks great through the entire movie; there’s one particular flight scene that manages to be a fine thrill ride without completely ripping off Iron Man. That said, the action in the climax didn’t go nearly long enough. Moreover, because the villain became so much less interesting after the reveal, the climax becomes less interesting in turn. The other big problem is that it’s the crucial moment when our six heroes finally start working together as a team, which would feel like much more of a victory if three or four of those six characters were developed into more than bare-bones archetypes.

It also doesn’t help that Hiro doesn’t give himself any powers. Seriously, the guy made suits for his friends, all of which were loaded with gadgets and weapons, then he makes a suit for himself with absolutely nothing. This means that our protagonist, the character with more development than anyone else, had absolutely nothing to do in the climax except give orders. I’m sorry, maybe it’s just me, but I expect my protagonist to play a much more direct and active role in the most energized part of a story. Just saying.

In summary, the movie is far more concerned with developing ideas and characters, rather than plot. I find that this is a very common problem with origin stories, franchise starters, TV pilots, etc. It’s truly regrettable that this movie had to fall into such a simple trap. Then again, if Disney wants to make a sequel with these characters and ideas, I’d be all for it.

And anyway, at least the filmmakers knew enough not to make things even more crowded with some useless romance subplot. Yes, I’m looking at you, Guardians of the Galaxy.

As for a few miscellaneous notes, I was very satisfied with the voice work. Scott Adsit is of course the standout as Baymax, though Ryan Potter proves himself as a nicely talented up-and-comer as well. Kudos are also due to Maya Rudolph (voicing Hiro’s Aunt Cass), who does a fine job making an impression with very little screen time. The supporting cast also includes James Cromwell and Alan Tudyk (here voicing his third straight douchebag for DAS), both of whom are always a pleasure to have onscreen. The music was overall nothing to write home about, though your mileage may vary depending on how you feel about Fall Out Boy. As for the animation, I shouldn’t even have to tell you that it’s amazing. If you’re going to see this movie and you have the cash to spend on the 3D premium, go ahead and do it.

Finally, I’d like to report that this movie does have a post-credits stinger. It features the customary Stan Lee cameo, but that’s about it.

All told, Big Hero 6 gets by on heart. The movie invests so much in Hiro and Baymax that those two characters and their relationship are enough to make the film worth watching. They give the movie a unique and poignant flavor, which is more than welcome in this oversaturated superhero landscape. Even better, the film’s celebration of science and creativity is highly commendable, and the action is still a lot of fun for however brief it is.

If only the filmmakers had any idea how to manage their screen time more carefully, I might have been able to give a more enthusiastic recommendation. Yet in spite of the film’s rushed and underdeveloped plot, there’s still enough energy and fun in there to make it worth watching. Definitely give it a look.

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