Big Hero 6 is barnstorming into theaters on a couple of big elevator-pitch selling points.
- It’s the first collaboration between Marvel and Disney Animation.
- It’s Disney’s follow-up to last year’s massively successful Frozen.
That might seem like a bit of an odd pairing, not to mention a lot to live up to, but at least on those two counts, Big Hero 6 differentiates itself. This San Fransokyo – set (yes, it’s exactly the mashup it sounds like) romp takes place in an altogether different universe than the Disney/Marvel live action superhero flicks, and this time around there are none of the musicality that drove Frozen or its closer companion, Tangled. That’s not to say that Big Hero 6 is totally original, however; it’s fun, fast paced, and colorful, but Big Hero 6 is also too familiar to stand out.
Big Hero 6 borrows liberally from superhero fare in general, but there are two films to which it seems particularly indebted: Iron Man and The Incredibles. The story centers on precocious young inventor Hiro (Ryan Potter), and the Tony Stark parallels are immediate and inescapable. Hiro is bored and ambitionless, beginning the movie by hustling underground robot fights until older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) finally drags him up to the university where he and an assembly line of sidekick personality types that comprise the other top-flight engineering students work on outlandish and remarkable new inventions. It may not be kidnapping by terrorist agents, but seeing the university lab has the same effect on Hiro. He forswears moneygrubbing at robot fights in favor of public service, and sets to trying to build something great enough to earn him admission to the university.
More subtle but no less influential are the parallels to The Incredibles. Hiro, Tadashi, and the other students are functionally superheroes by virtue of their vastly superior intellects and ability to create remarkable pieces of technology, but they must live as normal people among the society at large. Hiro is even chased by the police early on for revealing his “power” at one of the illegal robot fights. Unsurprisingly, this manifests into a publicly acceptable, threat-eliminating exhibition of super-prowess before the film’s end, not unlike the gleeful re-introduction of superhumans to the wider world at the end of The Incredibles.
None of that makes Big Hero 6 a bad movie – Iron Man has already proved himself plenty popular, and for my money The Incredibles is the best Pixar movie that doesn’t have “Toy Story” in its title. But it does make it too familiar for its own good. The inventive nature of the film’s protagonist begs for more creative solutions to his problems than, “Let’s make power armor and be super heroes!” no matter how cool that might be superficially. The primary antagonist, who for most of the movie is shrouded by a mask, gains power by stealing another of Hiro’s inventions – microbots. Though they have their root in the by now familiar sci-fi idea of a nanobot swarm, the microbots are an inherently creative invention, relying upon the imagination of the user to function, and I wish we could have seen an equally inventive solution.
But let’s not forget the other star of the show – Baymax, the pillowy robot that is the focus of Big Hero 6’s marketing efforts. Baymax is Tadashi’s university project, a healthcare robot which Tadashi has programmed to oversee the well-being of those around him. Voiced by Scott Adsit (30 Rock), Baymax is also a primary source of physical humor. There’s a particularly funny sequence where Hiro has to help the drunkenly low battery Baymax back to his charging station. There’s also some “learning about figures of speech” -type humor that hits pretty well, although it’s over-mined and, again, extremely familiar from characters like Mr. Spock and (more recently) Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) from Guardians of the Galaxy among many, many others. All told, Baymax is a good character and probably the star of the show, but not anything truly revolutionary.
You may notice a pattern emerging. Yes, Big Hero 6 is good and plenty of fun, especially for kids (I know I would have eaten this up when I was, say, eight or nine), but to the slightly more experienced viewer (read: the parents taking kids to this one), the rough edges are going to be a bit more noticeable. This extends to the plot as well, which might be the most haphazardly assembled part of the movie. Oh, it works fine driving from point A to point B to point C, but there are some sharp turns along the way. Structurally, the first half of the movie deals mostly with Hiro working towards school and getting familiar with Baymax, whereas the second half is more invested in an origins story of sorts and a series of hero/villain showdowns. There’s solid character motivation for the transition from one to the other, but the shift in both tone and subject matter is a little harsh.
As the more stock origins story and powers colliding part of the story, the second half also suffers from superhero fatigue far more than the first half. In fact, the question of whether superheroes needed to be introduced to this story is left a little unanswered. To its credit, the movie does work to talk about whether there’s any value in a violent response to problems, and that’s compelling couched within a superhero framework. Still, it’s a pretty small part of the picture that’s introduced when it’s plot-convenient and then resolved relatively quickly. Big Hero 6 is more interested in having fun with how cool it would be to have superpowered armor, and yes, there’s definitely still some fun escapism to be had in that as well.
The Verdict: 3 out of 5
For superhero thrills, especially among younger viewers, Big Hero 6 is your movie. It’s got a colorful cast that’s tailor-made for plenty of action figures and other tie-in toys, and kids who haven’t been exposed to the character types on display as much as their parents have are going to thrill at the exploits of Hiro, Baymax, and the rest. That said, Big Hero 6 is a film that always feels held back by sticking too close to the influence of many, many forerunners.