Superheroes continue to be big business at the box office, even as the stories are beginning to get repetitive and threadbare. Disney’s Big Hero 6 is the first animated feature based on a Marvel Comics property, although admittedly an obscure one. If it is somewhat lacking in originality, it more than compensates with an enormous heart, a genuine emotional payload, and an execution that’s engineered millimeter-tight and refined to a gem-like perfection.
Big Hero 6 starts with 13-year old Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), a robotics prodigy squandering his talents in illegal robot fighting gambling dens in the city of San Fransokyo. He decides to apply himself to more productive efforts after a visit to the research lab of his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney), where he meets Tadashi’s project Baymax (Scott Adsit), an electronic healthcare companion, along with Tadashi’s friends and fellow students Go Go (Jamie Chung), Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), and Fred (T.J. Miller). Tragedy strikes on the day Hiro first displays his “microbots” in public when a mysterious fire at the exhibition hall claims the lives of both Tadashi and the students’ advisor Professor Callaghan. Hiro is shaken out of his grief when a reactivated Baymax leads him to a mysterious factory manufacturing microbots by the thousands, seemingly run by a mysterious man dressed in black and covering his face with a kabuki mask. Hiro’s plans to capture this mysterious villain and bring him to justice leads him first to upgrade Baymax, and then use Tadashi’s friends’ research specialties (and Fred’s fanboy enthusiasm) to turn them all into superheroes.
On some level, Big Hero 6 exploits many of the same story beats as the first Iron Man movie, with a callow lead character learning to be a hero by exploiting his colossal talents at technology. This is not a complaint or a criticism, but more of a statement that most superhero movies are really just variations on the same themes. It is also intended as a compliment because Big Hero 6 is every bit as fun and enjoyable as that first Iron Man movie, and a bit more suitable for all-ages audiences. I always felt like Iron Man was a movie that had relatively low aspirations but far exceeded expectations in nearly everything it tried to do. If I have the same sense about Big Hero 6, I think its execution is even more effective.
Part of the reason why is that the plot of Big Hero 6 avoids some of the more problematic political aspects of that first Iron Man movie (which touch on elements of colonialism and are rooted in the simplistic idea that all we need to solve problems in foreign countries are bigger, better, badder weapons), but Big Hero 6 also manages to craft its story around a solid emotional core much earlier, centering on the relationships that Hiro has with his brother Tadashi and then with Baymax. Disney films have been openly playing on our emotions since Walt proclaimed that “for every laugh, there should be a tear,” and Big Hero 6 succeeds largely because of the ways it exploits that maxim. The deep sibling affection mixed with rivalry between Hiro and Tadashi will be completely familiar to anyone with a brother, and Hiro’s grief provides both a compelling plot engine and a strong emotional hot button that easily plays on our heartstrings. It’s very easy for Hiro and the audience to transfer those emotions to Baymax due to the robot’s connection to Tadashi, his innate innocence, and his soft, huggable appearance. Despite the title, Big Hero 6 is really their movie in the same way that Star Trek belongs to the triumvirate of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy. Go Go, Honey Lemon, Wasabi, and Fred are important (and fun) supporting characters, but this is fundamentally not their story. The same is true of the Hamadas’ Aunt Cass, who’s given a delightful urban-daffy sensibility by Maya Rudolph’s vocal performance and the animation of her facial expressions and body language. If I’m disappointed that the supporting cast doesn’t get more to do in Big Hero 6, I also consider it a small victory that the movie created characters I want to spend more time with so quickly. That emotional core is also why it’s easier to overlook or gloss over the few head-scratching plot twists or the occasional reliance on an extremely convenient coincidence.
The world of Big Hero 6 is also a delight, where its alternate history has fused Japanese and continental American culture so tightly that nearly everything in the movie reflects some mixture of those two elements. Japan has inspired pop culture urban dystopia for decades, but the city of San Fransokyo uses many of those same elements to create a city that feels warm, inviting, and lived-in. I am also deeply impressed that not only does the lead character of the movie reflect that balance between Japan and America in his mixed-racial heritage, but that Disney even cast Hiro and Tadashi with mixed-race Asian-American actors (both of whom are terrific in their roles). For that matter, I also appreciate the matter-of-fact way that the titular superteam is so ethnically diverse (especially if you assume that Honey Lemon is as Latina as her voice actor), and where the white dude is largely relegated to being the sidekick.
The most interesting aspect of Big Hero 6 to me is how Baymax reflects changing views on technology and intelligent machinery. Most depictions of artificially intelligent robots in American pop culture swing between meditations on what it means to be human and cautionary tales of technology run amok. Fictional AI either desperately wants to be human or is determined to extinguish humanity in literal or figurative senses. In contrast, Baymax does not have a Pinocchio complex, as he declares multiple times that he is only a machine without a trace of regret or resentment. It is a simple character trait, treated the same as Wasabi’s neat-freak obsessiveness or Go Go’s stoicism rather than as a fundamental character flaw that drives the plot of the movie. Similarly, if technology goes awry in Big Hero 6, it is always very clearly because of people grossly misusing it, and in at least one case, the rigid rules of technology actually avert further catastrophe. Baymax is an evolution of the Man/Machine Myth, where the plot is driven numerous times by Baymax’s status as an artificial life form but the artificial life form is not the point of the film. The only equivalent I can think of is Bishop in Aliens, except he isn’t as central to the plot as Baymax.
This evolution makes sense when an increasing array of computers are talking to us and guiding us through daily life, ranging from GPS’s giving us driving directions to Siri answering any random question we throw at it. Baymax’s success is also due to Scott Adsit’s marvelous vocal performance, which is genuinely benign and gentle while still feeling entirely artificial. Baymax’s utterances feel like something that was programmed with empathy in mind, but there’s a degree of human sincerity that’s perpetually missing in his intonation. Similarly, Baymax’s design and animation feel extremely organic while still being very distinctly mechanical. Despite his squishy exterior, Baymax’s movements are a recognizable imitation of humanity, but always feel just stilted and artificial enough to emphasize that he’s a machine. CGI also allows for Baymax’s skin to be textured with an unmistakable vinyl sheen that contrasts sharply with the more natural skin tones and fabrics of the human characters (at least until they all don their carbon fiber superhero body armor). The combination allows us to project more emotion onto Baymax than is actually there, just as we detect frustration when our GPS says it’s recalculating the route after we miss yet another turn.
Unsurprisingly, Big Hero 6 looks terrific on Blu-ray. It’s definitely a movie that rewards the attentive, and if it’s not quite as insanely over-stuffed with detail as The Book of Life, there are more than enough amusing touches sprinkled throughout the movie to warrant a lot of the freeze-framing and close examination that high-definition home video provides. The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is appropriately amazing, especially in the big battle sequences, a big car chase through San Fransokyo, and the musical training montage in the middle of the movie.
Individually, the bonus features are all quite satisfying, but they still feel a little thin in total. The short film “Feast” accompanies the movie just as it did in theaters, and it remains a charming little bonbon of a story. “The Origin Story of Big Hero 6: Hiro’s Journey” is hosted by actor Jamie Chung and sums up the movie’s journey from comic book to silver screen in a tight 15-minutes. Some of the points raised in that featurette are expanded on in “Big Animator 6: The Characters Behind the Characters,” where six of the animation crew discuss several creative choices in the movie, especially the “enter a room” early animation test, where they animated several cast members walking into a room and sitting down as a way to more fully define their character traits. It finishes all too quickly in just over six minutes, and I’m disappointed that we don’t get to see the full “enter a room” animation tests by the end. Several deleted scenes are provided in storyboard and animatic format, with directors Don Hall and Chris Williams introducing each segment and explaining why it was cut from the final film. They are all interesting, but also all appropriately left on the cutting room floor.
The original theatrical teaser trailer is also included, which is much appreciated. Given how much effort and promotion goes into trailers these days, it’s disappointing that more home video releases don’t include a reasonably complete set of their own trailers. Artfully hidden on the Blu-ray menu is the short “Big Hero Secrets” featurette, which is a quick run-through of the many hidden Easter Eggs throughout the movie and is likely to push you to Look Up many of those secrets. I must also admit I was amused at the new animation created for the Blu-ray and DVD menus, where each member of the super team does something cool for a few seconds. The Blu-ray combo pack comes with a DVD and a download code for a digital copy via Disney Movies Anywhere. The DVD bonuses consist of “Feast,” the “Big Animator 6” featurette, and the theatrical teaser, while the digital copy has all the bonus features of the Blu-ray except the Easter Egg featurette (unless it is even more artfully hidden than it is on the Blu-ray). Accessing the copy via the Disney Movies Anywhere app also turns up an added bonus: “Tokyo Go,” one of the new retro-themed Mickey Mouse shorts. I’m disappointed that there isn’t a feature commentary track, since it seems like the movie has enough thought and detail packed into it to support one easily.
The Incredibles is to superhero stories what a Tesla Model S is to cars or Astro City is to comic book superheroes: something that looks and feels familiar, but is really reconfiguring the conventional to craft something radically different. The comparison between The Incredibles to Astro City is especially apt, since both use superhero storytelling tropes as vehicles to talk about themes and ideas that go well beyond the usual adolescent male power fantasy stereotype. Big Hero 6 is more like a high-end Mercedes-Benz or Kurt Busiek and George Perez’s run on Marvel Comics’ The Avengers in the late 1990’s: an astonishingly well-executed expansion on a solid base of history, but more evolutionary than truly revolutionary. It’s doing the same thing that has gone before, but wins us over largely because it’s just so much fun to experience. Like the very best superhero comic books, Big Hero 6 inspires and delights and leaves us wanting more.