At this point it’s pretty safe to say that the Disney Revival is now in full swing. The era which began with either Bolt or The Princess and the Frog depending on your tastes, and which so far seems to mirror the trajectory of the Disney Renaissance in the 1990’s, has seen Disney producing some seriously outstanding films in the last few years. Tangled is an underrated masterpiece, Wreck-It Ralph is a creative, kinetic marvel, and Frozen has reached the point where it no longer requires description. Big Hero 6 represents not just the next big step for Disney Animation, but also the first attempt by Disney at creating its own Marvel-based content outside of the wildly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe. And while Big Hero 6 could never hope to live up to something like Frozen, it’s still wildly entertaining and enjoyable in its own right, and another solid rung in the Disney Revival ladder.
Big Hero 6 tells the story of Hiro Hamada, a typical high school graduate who doesn’t know what to do with his life. “Typical” except for the fact that he’s only 14 years old and is a robotics genius, spending his nights entering his inventions in illegal, back-alley robot fights against members of the mob and leaving his older brother Tadashi to rescue him and their aunt, with whom they live, to bail them out of prison. One night Tadashi takes Hiro by the robotics lab at the college he attends, and upon seeing the creativity and brilliance of Tadashi’s friends and fellow students, interacting with Tadashi’s project, Baymax, and meeting Tadashi’s teacher, Hiro becomes inspired to apply to the college. He creates thousands of microbots, tiny robots that act together to create anything their controller can imagine, in order to impress the college admissions people during an expo at the school. It works and just as he, Tadashi, and their friends celebrate his success an accident destroys kills Tadashi and his teacher while destroying the microbots.
Hiro sinks into a funk, refusing meals and all visitors, whether his aunt or Tadashi’s friends. Things only change when Hiro accidentally activates Baymax. Baymax, a large, white, inflatable robot, was designed by Tadashi as a healthcare companion, diagnosing injuries and illness and providing the recommended treatment. Baymax diagnoses Hiro as suffering from emotional issues (including puberty!) and refuses to leave his side until Hiro is satisfied with his care. The pair discover a lone, surviving microbot in Hiro’s pocket, that is trying to get somewhere. They track it to a warehouse where they discover that the microbots were stolen from the school by a mysterious masked figure who set off the explosion that killed Tadashi as a distraction. Hiro swears revenge, enlisting not only Baymax in his quest but also Tadashi’s friends to become superheroes in order to fight this new villain.
Big Hero 6 will seem familiar to anyone who’s seen a superhero movie in the last decade, as all of the origin story building blocks are here, along with a healthy dose of the hero-team aspects of The Avengers. However, its style, attitude, and character set it apart. It feels entirely like a Marvel superhero film, but also entirely like a Disney movie. At the center of the story are Hiro and Baymax, a teenager full of hurt and rage and a friendly robot who only wants to help. Their relationship is the heart of the story, as Baymax is upgraded with armor, rockets, and combat abilities so he can join the fight in order to be a “better care provider” for Hiro. They’re joined by a motley crew of Tadashi’s oddly named friends, who all suit up and join the team. There’s GoGo, a skater girl with attitude and an expertise in electromagnetism, there’s Honey Lemon, a perky, girly chemistry ace, and there’s Wasabi, a geeky, nervous laser specialist with the body of a football player. Oh, and there’s slacker Fred, who isn’t a student but who plays the school’s mascot day and night and loves hanging around the sciencey types.
The film is lovingly put together, from the setting of San Fransokyo, a visually interesting mix of San Francisco and Tokyo, to the design of its characters, to the choreography of its action. Directors Don Hall and Chris Williams never lose sight of the emotion of the story and their characters despite the action and scale of the film. Every sequence serves that character and emotion, from capturing the pure joy of Hiro and Baymax’s first flight through the city, to the overwhelming hunger for revenge as they fight the masked villain, to Hiro’s struggle to deal with the loss of his brother. (It’s interesting that despite the fact that all of the effects in modern superhero films are computer generated, Big Hero 6 still seems to have more freedom when it comes to how action is filmed. Compare Baymax and Hiro flying around San Fransokyo to the equivalent sequence in something like Iron Man and Big Hero 6 actually comes off as the more entertaining of the two.)
The roles are all well cast. Ryan Potter gives Hiro just the right balance of snarky attitude and genuine charm that makes him feel like a real teenager dealing with heavy issues but without ever becoming annoying. You can feel the potential in him and it makes you root for him to sort things out and get to a better emotional place. Jamie Chung, Genesis Rodriguez, and Damon Wayans, Jr. all work well as GoGo, Honey Lemon, and Wasabi, but T. J. Miller’s Fred steals almost every scene he’s in as the goofiest of the group. The rest of the cast is rounded out with solid supporting roles from the likes of Daniel Henney, Maya Rudolph, James Cromwell, and Alan Tudyk (Disney’s new version of Pixar’s John Ratzenberger, as Tudyk has now been in the last three Disney animated films). But the film’s real standout is Scott Adsit as Baymax.
Baymax combines many robot tropes from cinematic history. He’s adorable and endearing like WALL-E, though as huggable as a stuffed animal. He’s occasionally clueless in a way that resembles C-3PO. And like many great robots from history (Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, or the T-800 from Terminator 2: Judgment Day), he grows and evolves, learning the complexities of human life and emotion as he bonds with Hiro. His inflatable design is creative and makes Baymax a dynamic creation that feels wholly unique onscreen. He’s hilarious, particularly when asking Hiro to rate his pain on a 1-10 scale (helpfully illustrated by emoticons on his chest), struggling to understand the intricacies of a fist bump, or acting drunk as his battery runs down. But he’s also sweet, and his concern for Hiro (whether a part of programming or genuine emotion) anchors the film and constantly tugs at the heartstrings.
Big Hero 6 isn’t perfect. The surprise “twists” in the story are fairly predictable, the characters other than Hiro and Baymax aren’t given much development, and given its comic book sort of storyline the plot never feels entirely original. But those small faults are more than offset by the film’s humor and heart, not to mention its message. We’ve seen geniuses turn themselves into superheroes, but Hiro and his team feel very different from Tony Stark. Stark made becoming Iron Man seem cool because Stark himself is cool, and with the whole “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” thing it’s easy to imagine him creating the Iron Man suit. Big Hero 6 gives us a whole team of geniuses, but it never tries to make them “cool” in the traditional sense. Hiro, Honey Lemon, GoGo, and Wasabi may be experts at robotics, chemistry, electromagnetism, and lasers, but while all of them have a geeky love of science none of them fits any sort of stereotype. Hiro’s a troublemaking kid, Honey Lemon is peppy, “girly girl” whose superpowered invention takes the form of a purse, GoGo is a tough, extreme sports kind of girl, while Wasabi is more of a gentle, neurotic giant. Not to mention the fact that they’re all of different races/ethnicities. Iron Man may have made kids want to be Tony Stark, but Big Hero 6 could make them want to be scientists, showing kids that they don’t have to fit a certain age/race/gender/personality profile to be one, breaking through the sorts of stereotypes that typically turn people off to the sciences. It made me wish that the film gave more time to the rest of the team, and I hope any future sequels can spread out the screentime among more of the team than Hiro and Baymax.
Big Hero 6 is quite possibly the first film in a new superhero franchise (as almost any new film these days is eyed as a potential franchise), and as such it left me wanting to see more. It’s fun and enjoyable, with that Disney spirit and optimism that we want from the brand, but it’s also full of potential. I can’t remember the last movie with such a positive message (for kids and adults) about how knowledge, education and encouragement can make anyone into a hero to help save the world. Behind the excitement, the emotion, the action, the stunning visuals, and the plethora of humor is a movie that’s actually about something in a way that few movies even seem to have any interest, much less successfully pull off. It makes science and school appealing without ever being preachy about it. We’ve known for a while now that geeks can rule the world, but with Big Hero 6 we see that they can save it too. If a few extra kids ask for chemistry sets or science toys for Christmas this year, that can only be a good thing.