While Big Hero 6 is based on a Marvel comic and was made possible by Disney’s acquisition of the company back in 2009, Marvel Studios had nothing to do with the film’s production, and it’s not part of their “cinematic universe.” And that’s felt when watching the movie, which feels much more in line with the rest of the oeuvre of the House of Mouse than it does with that of the House of Ideas. The focus of the story is on adolescent self-actualization, which occurs through the standard family movie plot structure fine-tuned by Pixar and recently adopted in earnest by Disney. The result is not terribly different from a lot of other recent animated fare, though there are agreeable standout elements.
Chief among these is the robot Baymax. While its unflappably calm demeanor (usually used for comedic effect, of course) isn’t a new take on ‘bot behavior, the fact that it focuses always on the well-being of its compatriots (it is, after all, a healthcare assistant) makes it feel fresh, along with its innovative vinyl balloon design. Baymax looks and moves like no other robot we’ve seen before in film, and its matronly behavior, along with Scott Adsit’s soothing voice work, make it utterly lovable.
Baymax is left to teen genius Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) after the untimely death of his engineer brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney). Hiro is the PG version of a “troubled” kid – an orphan being raised by a busy aunt (Maya Rudolph), he’d rather use his smarts to participate in illegal robot fights than in anything productive. That changes when he accidentally activates Baymax, and the pair discover a masked, nanobot-controlling villain who may have had something to do with Tadashi’s death. With the help of Baymax and Tadashi’s four old friends/labmates, Hiro sets out to fight the masked man, and, of course, learns plenty of lessons along the way.
Despite being named after and featuring a superhero team, it actually might have behooved Big Hero 6 to drop that angle. So much focus is on Hiro and Baymax that the four other members are relegated far to the fuzzy end of the movie’s focus. There’s an obligatory action scene that shows that they have trouble functioning as a team, but weirdly enough, there’s no payoff to this in which they all learn to work as a unit. None of them have arcs to speak of, just a few broad defining characteristics. There’s GoGo Tomago (Jamie Chung), a tuff girl of action, Honey Lemon (Génesis Rodríguez), who’s sweet-natured and energetic, Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.), who’s fussy and comedically cautious, and Fred (T.J. Miller), an easygoing slacker who provides comic book nerd meta-commentary on the events. None of them have grating presences, and each gets at least one or two good moments, but they consistently get spun to the margins of Hiro and Baymax’s story.
In a lot of respects, Big Hero 6 is stiflingly bound by convention. Besides Baymax, most of the character design could have come out of any other CGI animated film. (The Book of Life has made me way less tolerable of American animated prosaicness recently.) The film’s look tries to combine Western and Eastern aesthetics, taking place in the Asian fusion inspired “San Fransokyo.” But all this really amounts to is San Francisco with some added Japanese touches – the Golden Gate Bridge having torii arches, and such. It’s an odd direction to take with source material that simply took place in Tokyo, with an all-Japanese cast, and it reeks of a generification attempt meant to “broaden” the movie’s appeal. To the film’s credit, it at least wasn’t afraid of having a Japanese-American protagonist.
Likewise, the score is of the orchestrated sort that could belong to any big blockbuster (made all the more frustrating by brief snippets of electronica that sound far more enlivening). The plot hits every beat we’ve come to expect of kid flicks, from the overlong prologue (though longer in this case, and with the actual benefit that it gives us a good sense of the dynamic between Hiro and Tadashi) to a fakeout with the “true identity” of the villain to the moment where the protagonist is a jerk and drives his friends away.
Big Hero 6 is fun. It’s got the carefully-calibrated modern Disney touch of general upbeat leavened with just enough pathos to provide a sense of weight but not enough to ruffle too many feathers. One edge it has over its live action superhero compatriots is a consistently dynamic sense of energy during action scenes (this is why superheroes are better suited to animation, people).
It’s cute and funny in many places, and it has a great robot. What else do you need? Well, you could do with a lot more than this film has to offer, but it’s still satisfactory.
The Upside: Baymax is the best. Sweet sibling dynamics. Many fun beats and scenes.
The Downside: Doesn’t make much use of its team premise. Overly conventional in many respects.
On the Side: Baymax’s inflatable vinyl design is based on real robotics development being done at Carnegie Mellon. It’s head is inspired by the look of a Japanese suzu bell.