FRESH POUR: Big Hero 6 (2014)

Big Hero 6
dirs. Dom Hall and Chris Williams
Walt Disney Pictures

Now that Disney owns Marvel (on its way to owning every major studio and property under the sun), it was inevitable that they’d adapt a Marvel comic property into a Walt Disney Animation Studios film. After all, it’s basically the pop-culture equivalent of combining chocolate with peanut butter – put together Frozen with The Avengers, and you’ll basically make all the money in the world. Big Hero 6 is that Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup made manifest, an adaptation of a Marvel comic about a superhero team of young robotics geniuses, led by teenage wunderkind Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), who must stop the onslaught of Yokai and his army of swarming microbots from destroying the city of San Fransokyo. In a lot of ways, Big Hero 6 lives up to the high standards of blockbuster entertainment that both Disney and Marvel have set up for it, even if it doesn’t innovate in a lot of ways.

The film’s setting of San Fransokyo is a fun near-future mix of San Francisco and Tokyo, which can rely on some unfortunate stereotypes at times – though some are sufficiently lampshaded, like Wasabi lamenting his nickname (“I spilled wasabi on my shirt one time…”). It’s a world of robot cockfighting, floating zeppelins and a Golden Gate Bridge outfitted with mokoshi curved roofs, the sort of Metropolis-like city that suits Big Hero 6’s big ambitions and bigger heart. The comic and the film alike pay heartfelt homage to Saturday morning superhero cartoons, Japanese anime, mecha and kaiju pictures, arguably keeping the spirit of the latter two more than something like Pacific Rim. While PacRim tried to marry the concepts of big robots and lizard monsters with the self-seriousness of an American blockbuster, Big Hero 6 has a lot more fun with it.

It does feel a bit weird, admittedly, that a film set in a fully integrated mix of Japanese and American culture features no Asian voice actors save for Jamie Chung’s Gogo; characters named Hiro, Tadashi, and Wasabi all have American voice actors, and (SPOILER ALERT) even the film’s villain (who wears a kabuki mask) turns out to be an evil Caucasian robotics master named Callaghan. Even so, I’m hesitant to indict the movie on these grounds, as the mere fact of having Asian-American main characters as the bulk of a film’s population, much less its heroes, is a big step forward.

Far and away, the center of the film’s appeal is Baymax, the “market-tested, huggable” medical robot who serves as Hiro’s best friend, brother surrogate and erstwhile moral compass. Baymax’s primary function is as a medical care droid, always looking after Hiro’s physical and emotional needs in the most direct, idealistic way (mistakenly summing up Hiro’s emotional pain as the “hormonal mood swings” of the onset of puberty). The animators make great use of Baymax’s unseemly status as an inflatable robot, mining a lot of comedy gold out of his schlubby, pot-bellied clumsiness. Scott Adsit’s pleasant, direct voice imbues Baymax with a lot of warmth, playing the naivete and earnestness of Baymax’s direct protocols very nicely – his interactions with Hiro are heartwarming to behold.

All of these WDAS films thus far have had a surprisingly strong emotional core to them, from Wreck-It Ralph’s focus on what it means to be a hero or villain to Frozen’s deconstruction of sisterly love and feelings of isolation. In Big Hero 6, the pet issue is grief – Hiro loses his brother Tadashi in an explosion, and the rest of the film sees him trying to deal with that sense of loss. Baymax, who was Tadashi’s last major creation, becomes in many ways a surrogate replacement for Hiro, and also a vehicle for his pain and anguish.

Baymax’s malleability in personality and identity echoes, in some ways, Hiro’s struggle to figure out who he is, like all young boys do during puberty. The many ways in which Hiro augments, upgrades and expands Baymax’s capabilities and programming (giving him armor and wings, turning him from a warm medical droid with the potential to change the world into a violent killing machine) reflects Hiro’s growing path toward anger and revenge as a coping mechanism. The more he trains Baymax to learn karate and gives him rocket fists, the more Hiro begins to disrespect his brother’s memory.

This pays off in a great way in the film’s second act, as Hiro is forced to recognize the ways in which he has perverted his brother’s idealistic creation, turning both Baymax and himself into the kind of person Tadashi would be ashamed of. It’s a great message for kids, especially ones who have suffered loss – while sulking in your room and wishing revenge on who you think is responsible may feel good in the moment, it won’t heal your pain. As Baymax repeatedly tells him, “contact with friends and family” is the answer: a simple but effective parable told in a somewhat unconventional way.

One admittedly disappointing element is the nature of the superhero team itself. By virtue of the film being Hiro’s story, the other four major “Big Heros” get short shrift. Apart from some nice little character moments, the other four heroes come off as kind of interchangeable, and mostly exist as a homogenous support group for Hiro’s journey. In any other movie, that’d be well and good – except Baymax already provides so much effective comedy and drama, it feels a bit wasteful to have these one-gag characters steal focus from them every few scenes. The gimmicky design of their powers and abilities (Fred builds a faux-Godzilla suit, Honey Lemon has a purse full of sticky bombs, Wasbi has laser sword hands) is also slightly underwhelming. Still, this lack of creativity is compensated for by the genuinely spooky and creative nature of the villain Yokai, who glides along his sea of mentally-controlled microbots like a giant squid in a kaiju picture.

These complaints are pretty minor, and are mostly just nitpicks; the supporting characters are all vibrant and exciting in their own small ways, and the film works well within its scope. The animation is typically gorgeous for a Walt Disney Animation Studios production, and the production design is fantastic, especially of the cyberpunk-y San Fransokyo and its accompanying landscapes.For a family outing, it’s heartfelt, surprisingly affecting and entertaining; as a Marvel movie, it’s not too bad either (don’t forget to stick around after the credits if you care about such things). All in all, Big Hero 6 is an admirable entry into the WDAS canon, if not a revolutionary one.

Oh, and be sure to tune in for the usual WDAS pre-film short, Feast – if you like constant shots of a cute dog eating junk food, you’ll be in hog (dog?) heaven.

(Interestingly enough, there’s a lot of parallelism to this weekend’s other new release, Interstellar – both films heavily feature a sentient, multipurpose robot with a sense of humor who ends up saving the day by diving into a black hole to facilitate the reunion of a father and daughter, one of whom is an astronaut lost in a singularity  and presumed dead.)

Clint’s Verdict: Liked It

Big Hero 6 Movie Drinking Game:
1) Drink whenever someone says the word ‘bot’ (Drink twice for ‘bot fights’
2) Drink every time Baymax has difficulty squeezing through/around something
3) Drink any time someone reminds Hiro of his brother Tadashi
Finish Your Drink When:
Baymax says, “Flying makes me a better healthcare companion.”

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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