Nicely blending animated ambition with an easygoing sense of crowd pleasing familiarity, Big Hero 6 doesn’t raise the bar much higher for Disney animated films or Marvel based properties, but it’s charming, effective, never dull, and gets by almost on sheer force of will. The first half is incredibly strong in terms of warmth, storytelling, and emotional heft, so it gets a little disappointing when the films kind of shrugs and turns into a pretty standard knock-off of a live action Marvel film (or the films of Brad Bird since it almost turns into an answer to the hypothetical question “What if The Iron Giant joined The Incredibles?”). At least at that point, the writing and animation stay clever and sharp while the story descends into familiarity.
In the fictional, futuristic supercity San Fransokyo, child prodigy Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter) could be attending university at a young age, but he prefers hustling criminal types in underground robot battles. His single mother (Maya Rudolph) and loving older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) want Hiro to attend the most advanced robotics programs in the world. Immediately taken with the potential of working under one of his robotics idols (James Cromwell), Hiro agrees to apply to Tadashi’s university and invents Microbots as his application to the university, potentially lucrative, versatile, thumbnail sized robots that catches the eye of a dubious industrialist (Alan Tudyk). Shortly after unveiling his invention, there’s an explosion at the school, killing Tadashi, that’s used as a cover to steal Hiro’s creation. Sullen and looking for revenge, Hiro finds unlikely allies in Baymax (Scott Adsit) – a non-threatening, inflatable, healthcare dispensing robot that’s designed to comfort, heal, and love, created by Tadashi shortly before his death – and Tadashi’s ragtag band of former classmates.
The most immediately striking thing about Big Hero 6 are the visuals. They’re unlike anything previously seen in an animated production, taking visual cues from filmmakers like Michael Mann, John Carpenter, and Ridley Scott rather than delivering an easily palatable set of locations. San Fransokyo might be one of the most fully realized fictional worlds in quite some time, with a great balance of neon lit vibrancy running aground of sometimes sketchy neighbourhoods and back alleys. The action sequences are also incredibly ambitious, especially a car chase where our heroes have to escape from the film’s Kabuki masked villain. It’s a world that feels dangerous, yet not devoid of hope like one would see in recent Batman and Superman films. The setting adds stakes and a sense of true imagination. The design of Big Hero 6 is very learned and literate.
Then there’s the welcome darkness that kicks off the story. Directors Don Hall (who did the outstanding Winnie the Pooh reboot a couple years back) and Chris Williams (Bolt) take time to not rush into the crime fighting and bits with the highly marketable robot sidekick. The relationship between Hiro and his brother gets outlined in loving detail, and it’s allowed to grow to a point where the real inciting incident of the story takes on the feeling of a grander tragedy. Once Baymax finally enters into the story full time, the sense of warmth and joy that the character brings feels earned and cathartic. The loss suffered by Hiro feels real, and a natural extension of the character he embodies before finding something he’s good it. The first act of Big Hero 6 is a great clinic in giving a character an epiphany early, only to have it snatched away moments later. It might even be a bit too dark for kids – the lab explosion is terrifyingly shot – but it’s only a few moments away from a cute character telling them everything will be okay.
And Baymax is quite the character, a fumbling, well meaning entity that only wants to do good. It’s the character that all the humans in this world should aspire to be. Thankfully upon Baymax’s arrival Hall and Williams don’t purposefully make the rest of the film around him into something cynical to offset the sweetness. He’s the least likely tool for Hiro to accomplish his often vengeful and single minded vision of justice, but also a necessary conscience for the young boy. Sure, it’s another “boy and his robot” story, but it works.
Having had a few weeks to sit on Big Hero 6 and think about it since I first saw it, my opinion of it has changed for the better. It’s clearly aimed at kids and not more serious adult audiences, so the sometimes wonky, often convenient plot mechanics and underdeveloped side characters weren’t as irksome here as they could be had this been a live action adaptation. Plus, those glitches move by pretty quickly. But it’s hard not to shake the disappointment that kicks in once the film races headlong into becoming a superhero flick.
The title refers to the band of heroes that are formed when Tadashi’s former classmates (Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans Jr., and Genesis Rodriguez) and a comic addled nerd who hangs out around the lab (a scene stealing T.J. Miller) join the cause. At a certain point – right after the aforementioned car chase – the film practically stops on a dime, throws together a montage set to a Fall Out Boy track, and just becomes Avengers-lite. From that point on, it’s all action, all the time, and gadget-outfitted wannabe superheroes saving the day from evil.
I guess that’s fine because it still looks outstanding, but it bugged me for a while following the screening. After the patience in the early part of the film, the material starts racing to send the audience home on a high note. None of these other characters except for Miller’s have an arc. They just have stuff to do and are marketed based on the toys that could probably be sold from their appearance in the film. Worse, they actually distract from Hiro and Baymax because they just aren’t as interesting to follow even for a few seconds. For example: the only depth Chung’s character is allowed to have is three-fold. She loves bicycles, chews bubblegum like Roddy Piper in They Live, and she more than once says “woman up” to people acting like wimps. I get it, the film’s trying to be progressive and subversive with gender roles, but that’s just a mask for not actually creating a character with any sort of depth.
It comes together in the end with a satisfying conclusion that ties nicely into the film’s initial points about the loss of a loved one, and it’s hard not to get teary eyed at a lot of what happens in the first and final thirds. There are some bumps along the way, but Big Hero 6 is a mostly alright comic book action spectacular with big laughs and a big heart. Or to paraphrase one of the film’s most touching repeated lines, I’m satisfied with my care.