Walt Disney Animation Studios has been on a winning streak lately. As the once and future waterway for every generation’s childhood nostalgia, this is the studio that has recently entered a new revitalization with Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, and most especially last year’s Frozen, which became one of the most important box office phenomena in recent times. It’s also safe to say that this success is only about to grow with their newest charm offensive, Big Hero 6.
The latest animated film stands poised to conquer all family fare in its path this holiday season and with good reason, as this latest effort is sure to please adults almost as much as children with its dazzling visuals and very comic book movie ready plot. Indeed, Big Hero 6 marks the first collaboration between Marvel and what I’d call “Disney Proper,” as it is adapted from the obscure Marvel comic book created by Steven T. Seagle and Duncan Rouleau. While it has little in common with that recondite (and very 1990s) comic source material, Big Hero 6 is still right on the money at emulating its Marvel Studios live-action brethren, particularly in a third act with animation that can dream bigger than any amount of CGI-actor hybrids. Of course, the trade-off also is that this is much more a modern superhero movie than a Disney fairy tale—with all that entails.
Big Hero 6 centers on a hip young kid named Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), living in the futuristic hybrid of East and West that is San Fransokyo. He’s a genius even by these futuristic standards. Having graduated high school at the age of 13, he could do anything, but he seems to be getting his kicks in the lucrative underground world of “bot-fighting,” where instead of cute animals fighting to the death, it’s even cuter robots. His Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph) and older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) want more for the underachieving lad, and as it so happens, Tadashi is also something of a genius himself since he attends a “nerd school” university that he wants his kid brother to join.
Hiro’s mind is changed over night about the importance of academics after one trip to Tadashi’s school lab and its introduction to a slew of cool colorful side characters like the abrasively edgy Go Go (Jamie Chung), the cutely awkward geek Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), the awkward, awkward geek Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), and their slacker mascot Fred (T.J. Miller). With these characters already working on cyber buzz saws, hover-bikes that appear to crack the speed of sound, and weaponized pink decorations (you’ll have to see it), Hiro is in love. But there’s nothing nearly as endearing as his own brother’s crowning achievement, a healthcare-providing robot named Baymax (Scott Adsit), whose design all but projects a beckoning floodlight with the words “Hug me.”
Soon enough, Hiro is earning his way into this school by impressing the stern Professor Callaghan (James Cromwell) with “microbots,” nano technology that can form into anything. But after a seemingly tragic accident takes away Hiro’s mentoring brother like any other good superhero origin story, Hiro must learn to let go of grief with the help of a new surrogate buddy in Baymax—just as they discover this accident is more than it appears after a super-villain appears using Hiro’s microbots.
From a synopsis alone, the overlapping similarities between Big Hero 6 and superhero origin stories, particularly of the Marvel variety, are fairly self-evident. Hiro is entirely the archetypal boy hero who will learn, in so many words, that with great power comes great responsibility. Nevertheless, what Walt Disney Animation Studios can dream up visually is so splendidly surreal that it cracks the edge of imaginations that are not bound by real three-dimensions or gravity, at some points even allowing the movie to enter the headspace of the likes of Jack Kirby. While the action of the movie’s second half, when the smart kids become even smarter superheroes, is the stuff of that team-centric altruism that’s storming multiplexes at a steady clip these days, it’s whenever Hiro or the villain gets to use the microbots that the animators are truly set free. The ease with which a technopathic device allows Hiro and company to build any variety of visions or devices with the miniature robots is only encumbered by the limits on the animators’ imagination—which is to say not at all.
But their greatest achievement is unsurprisingly the film’s real mascot (sorry Fred): Baymax. This character looks like the animators found a balloon animal of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and then they inflated him to life-sized proportions. I write that as the highest compliment. Meant to be the perfect companion for any superhero-crazed boy, Baymax will undoubtedly be just that for millions with the coming holidays, especially due to his multiple incarnations thought up by Hiro, including one that involves a projectile fist.
Baymax is surrounded by an equal number of colorful teammates. The standouts of the group are Honey Lemon and Fred. The latter is meant to be a scene-stealer as voiced by Miller like he’s slaying them at family night in the comedy club. But Rodriguez is truly good as Honey Lemon, who imbues her small bits with the kind of wide-eyed incessant glee present in all of Disney Animation’s best sidekicks—and protagonists.
Unfortunately, she is not quite either, and is ultimately relegated to the archetypal background as with the rest of the non-Hamada/Baymax characters, who mostly standby with platitudes for Hiro until the action heavy second half kicks into gear. In the meantime, we’re stuck with Hiro, a blandly likable kid hero that hits all the same beats onscreen that Peter Parker has done twice—except without as much playful grace.
The best Disney movies don’t pull the heartstrings—they snap them into a dozen pieces with the kind of heavy pulling that construction workers use to lift baby grand pianos. But this time, we can feel the tug whenever Hiro looks warmly at a comforting Baymax, and as a result, adults will be remarkably less moved from the intended emotional whiplash that the film strives for.
Walt Disney Animation Studios’ last three films had an earnest joy that propelled viewers far deeper into their playful dreamscapes than Big Hero 6 ever dares to venture. It also lacks the self-aware enthusiasm that made this past winter’s The Lego Movie a knowing and intoxicating delight for all ages. Ultimately, Big Hero 6 works primarily best as a family entertainment that will have the young ones as pumped, and the older viewers as amused, as any Marvel Studios picture. In fact, this animated feature’s climax could certainly stand in for (and surpass) the finale of the recent Iron Man films with a dizzying vertigo that’s all its own.
Before my press screening, which wonderfully doubled as a chance for press and industry folk to share their work with the family, I overheard several young girls a few rows down belting “Let it Go” at the top of their lungs—almost a year to the day as when I first heard that song at a similar event. It was a charming testament to the strength of Disney. I doubt in another year that children will be quoting Baymax and his affection for “hairy baby” kittens. But with that said, they’ll still be in awe of this inflatable animated wonder for the rest of the holidays, which Big Hero 6 has cornered as the best family movie of the season. That’s pretty super too.