Big Hero 6 (2014)
Dirs: Don Hall, Chris Williams
There’s no two ways about it – there’s a glut of superhero movies right now with even more in the pipeline. With Marvel/Disney (owners of the main Marvel Cinematic Universe including The Avengers and its offshoots) announcing their plans through the next five years, Warner/DC (Superman, Batman and more) scheduling their next ten movies, and additional properties from Fox (Fantastic Four) and Sony (Spider-man) forthcoming, you’d be forgiven for feeling some superhero fatigue (here’s a handy chart to help you keep them straight). How is Big Hero 6 – a CGI adaptation of an obscure Marvel comic – any different?
For one, it exists in its own “universe”, meaning it’s a stand-alone film (until the inevitable sequel) and audiences don’t need to do 6 films’ worth of homework to follow along. The filmmakers adapted the story loosely, so fidelity to source material isn’t even that important. And even though Big Hero 6 is an origin story that borrows liberally from multiple contemporaries, it still manages to somehow feel mostly fresh. Some novel ideas and settings distinguish Big Hero 6 from the superhero pack and help it rise above superfluous dreck like The Amazing Spider-Man while not quite reaching the giddy highs of Marvel’s latest offerings (like Captain America: Winter Soldier and Guardians of The Galaxy).
Ryan Potter voices Hiro, a genius teen with a flair for robotics and few legal outlets to channel his skills into. He resides in the near-future city of San Fransokyo (a portmanteau of San Francisco and Tokyo) and, like his mashup city, is a genial mix of East and West sensibilities. Orphaned at a young age, he and his well-meaning older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) live with their aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph) as they make incredibly complex and potentially world-changing robots. Hiro’s creations are violent and crafty, well-suited to grifting thugs in underground robot battles, while Takashi toils away on Baymax, a kindly medical care robot designed only to help.
The noble Takashi introduces his wunderkind brother to his university lab and the many inventive scientists that work there in an exposition heavy scene that foreshadows some neat super-abilities to come. As all superheroes must be borne of fire and brimstone, tragedy inevitably strikes in a surprisingly intense scene (more How To Train Your Dragon than the typical G-Rated Disney fare) leading Hiro down the path of heroism. And so Hiro must band together with a group of nerdy misfits and re-purpose the gentle bot Baymax for some ass-kicking (in a montage that cheekily nods to The Matrix) to stop a city-wide threat.
The assembled team is refreshingly (perhaps forcefully) non-conformist, consisting of: the brash and bold Go Go (catch phrase: “Woman up!”), the Donatello-like Wasabi, the cheerful Honey Lemon, the comic nerd & 4th wall breaking Fred (voiced by the distinctive T.J. Miller, making a cottage industry out of roles like this), and Tadeshi and his monosyllabic healthcare robot Baymax. As a pot-bellied and inflatable toddler-like creation, the goofy Baymax steals the show and will certainly be a favourite of kids everywhere. He gets most of the best lines (Fred gets some), like when he waddles away from mortal danger on comically stumpy legs and utters “I am not fast”. His attempts to understand human behaviour are charming throughout, and lend humour and soul to a movie that already has a surfeit of it.
The plot developments zip by, with the usual bluster and flurry of action that audiences demand of their CGI entertainment these days. Even though most of the beats are familiar, there’s generally just enough of a spin on things to keep it from feeling shopworn. For instance, the Kabuki-masked villain controls thousands of nanobots as a means of attack and the reveal of their identity suitably subverts expectations. The heroes have equally interesting tech at their disposal, like Wasabi’s lightsabre-like wrist blades, Go Go’s multi-purpose magnetic wheels, and Baymax’s striking but ill-fitting armour. The usual setbacks and steps forwards all lead to the necessary climactic showdown, but by then there’s enough characterization done and goodwill built up to make the stakes feel real and the thrills earned. Without spoiling anything, the final scenes once again crib heavily from peers which in this case happen to be The Avengers and Pacific Rim.
It can sometimes lean too heavily on the concept of a CGI movie as a whirlwind of forward momentum, catchphrases, and lengthy action sequences with little to break it up, but overall the result is pleasant and enjoyable. As the gold standard of modern animation (and another tale featuring a young boy bonding with a robot), The Iron Giant is evoked on numerous occasions (whether deliberately or not). While Big Hero 6 can’t match that movie’s emotional resonance it may still cause a sudden occurrence of isolated rain on your face (“My eyes are just a little sweaty today!”), depending on how much of a sucker you are for tales like this (I probably rank pretty high).
The themes of family bonds, helping versus harming, and taking responsibility for your actions are hardly new (and in fact appear in most superhero stories, especially Spider-Man), but are given an attractive new paint job here. A stylistic pastiche that plays to the young crowd but can still hold the interest of older audiences, Big Hero 6 is a mostly successful animated action adventure that has only the most tenuous ties to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and is better for it.