With Marvel’s brand of comfort food devouring the cinematic (and pop cultural) landscape, it was only a matter of time before their corporate overlords at Disney borrowed that unbeatable formula for their animation division. The first of these Marvel-Disney mash-ups is Big Hero 6, an action-heavy feast for the senses that takes the established Marvel superhero formula and repackages it into a vibrant package perfectly suited for the 10-and-under masses.
Very loosely based on an obscure Marvel comic of the same name, Big Hero 6 centers on a 14-year-old orphan & engineering genius named Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter). Hiro lives with his equally-gifted older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) and their aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph) in San Fransokyo—an astonishingly-realized mash-up of San Francisco and Tokyo. When Tadashi takes Hiro on a campus tour of his engineering university, he introduces the kid to his latest invention: Baymax (Scott Adsit), an inflatable (and cuddly) healthcare robot who looks like a cross between the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and the Pillsbury Doughboy.
Dazzled by Baymax and the state-of-the-art facilities at the university, Hiro becomes determined to join the university. During his visit, he also meets a group of Tadashi’s oddball friends, all with special talents of their own. The sassy Gogo (Jamie Chung) is a mechanical engineering wiz, the perky Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) is a chemistry expert, martial artist Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.) is a master at applied physics, and laid back Fred (T.J. Miller) is… uh, the resident comic relief.
When the university’s dean, Professor Callaghan (James Cromwell), tells Hiro that the winner of an engineering competition gains automatic admission into the university, Hiro puts all his efforts into inventing a new technology he dubs microbots. But then, in true Disney fashion, tragedy strikes! A mysterious criminal, whose only recognizable feature is a kabuki mask, destroys the university campus and makes away with the microbots. Consumed by rage and revenge, Hiro vows to find the criminal and make him pay for his crime. Since he can’t take on the villain all alone, he creates snazzy super-powered costumes for him, his pals, and for Baymax, who he transforms from a puffy healthcare robot into an ultra-powerful soft-spoken version of Iron Man.
The first thing you’ll notice about Big Hero 6, which was directed by the team of Chris Williams and Don Hall, is its jaw-dropping animation, which is a striking combination of Hollywood CG techniques and Japanese cell anime. The animation here rivals some of the best work created for Pixar and Dreamworks. Every aspect of the colorful production design, from the metro cars on the streets to the posters on the walls of Hiro’s room to the superhero suits his friends wear, is painstakingly-detailed down to the pixel. It all starts with the imaginative setting of San Fransokyo. The city elicited the same reaction in me as the first time I saw Ridley Scott’s version of a futuristic Los Angeles in Blade Runner. True to the cultures that inspired it, San Fransokyo pays homage to the dynamic architecture of San Francisco and Tokyo. There are also hints of Hong Kong, Guillermo del Toro and anime styling thrown in for good measure.
There’s also Baymax, who is quite possibly the best original Disney creation since Wall-E. With his soft-spoken tone and child-like demeanor, he’s both, a relatable figure and a delight to watch. His larger than life size also makes him the butt of a series of ingenious slapstick jokes that had every kid (and adult) at my screening howling. Funnier than Olaf from Frozen and as cute as Boo from Monsters Inc., Baymax is a dream creation not only for animators but merchandizing executives as well.
It’s too bad then that the story itself doesn’t live up to Baymax and the spectacular animation. The plot, which finds Hiro, Baymax and their pals taking on a mysterious, seemingly indestructible villain, will be familiar to anyone over the age of 10. Like The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World and Guardians of the Galaxy (to use recent examples), Big Hero 6 ends with a destructive supernatural event taking place in a downtown city location. Isn’t it time we retired that cliché? Like nearly every Disney movie that precedes it, a family death is the impetus for the hero’s quest. Can this cliché be euthanized too?
When you consider that Hiro Hamada is a witty but misunderstood genius with a penchant for machinery just like Tony Stark, and that many of the characters’ superpowers are lifted directly from other Disney properties, you have to wonder why a studio with such an endless arsenal of resources has to rely on derivative storytelling. It’s to directors Hall and Williams’ credit then that the movie succeeds in spite of these issues. Big Hero 6 may not scale the heights of this year’s two other high profile animated releases, Warner Brothers’ hyperactive The Lego Movie and Dreamworks’ stirring How to Train Your Dragon 2, or The Incredibles, the granddaddy of all animation superhero movies. But what it lacks in storytelling verve, it more than makes up with charm, humor and superlative animation.
Oh, and the unforgettable Baymax.
BIG HERO 6
Director: Don Hall & Chris Williams
Screenwriter: Daniel Gerson & Robert L. Baird, Jordan Roberts
Cast: (voices of) Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, Jamie Chung, Genesis Rodriguez, Damon Wayans Jr.
Producer: Roy Conli
Running time: 102 minutes
Companies: Walt Disney Animation Studios
Rating: PG for action and peril, some rude humor, and thematic elements.