Review: Big Hero 6 (2014)

Disney makes films as products. They believe in telling a good story, but they never lose sight of the fact that their films are meant to make money and create new opportunities for merchandising. However, they’re also that rare corporation that believes that a quality product will sell better than a lousy product. With that in mind, I knew what story beats I’d get in Big Hero 6 and I knew that the film’s creative vision would be entwined with its commercial prospects. But I still kind of loved it, nevertheless. Big Hero 6 is beautiful and satisfying. It’s even better than last year’s megahit, Frozen, inspiring none of that film’s thematic reservations. Like its robot mascot, Baymax, it’s big and lovable. It’s a genuine celebration of how science and creativity can combine to make something exciting.

Directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams (Hall co-directed Winnie the Pooh and Williams co-directed Bolt), Big Hero 6 works in much the same vein as most superhero origin stories—it’s based off an obscure Marvel comic book. It’s got a plucky young genius in Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) with a knack for building technological marvels. In the film’s first scene we see him easily dismantling aggressive rivals in underground “bot-fighting” rings. Him and his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) live with their hyperactive Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph), as their parents died when Hiro was three. Hiro is a child prodigy, having already graduated high school at the age of 14, but he wastes his talents on empty pursuits like bot-fighting. When tragedy strikes his brother at a technology showcase, Hiro of course steps up, converting his brother’s medical robot Baymax (Scott Adsit) into a weaponized fighting machine, enlisting his brother’s university friends to become fellow superheroes, and going out to stop whoever was responsible.

All of these elements are conventional, but Disney has always traded in the realm of convention, and they know what they’re doing. In fact, they’ve pioneered many of the conventions themselves. Big Hero 6 hits every beat expected of a superhero story—the orphan backstory, the feeling of isolation, the personal tragedy that spurs action, the eleventh hour crisis of conscience, the finale that emphasizes teamwork and selflessness—but it does so with heart and upbeat energy. It’s also more emotionally earnest and optimistic than most superhero films nowadays.

Big Hero 6 is never trying to be ironic, unlike Guardians of the Galaxy, even though one of the prominent supporting characters is a comic book geek (T. J. Miller) who jumps at the chance to become a superhero and revels in the fact that a real life supervillain is after them during a car chase. It favours the optimism present in classical superhero tales over anything dour, gritty, or mocking. Even its villain isn’t so different from its hero, emotionally speaking. There are genuinely touching moments throughout, and the film rightly emphasizes the danger of revenge and the need for emotional healing after tragedy.

Aside from a late third act story beat (present in everything from Star Trek Into Darkness to Guardians of the Galaxy) that felt cheap, I was on board with pretty much everything in Big Hero 6. Hiro is a nifty character, the kind of protagonist that can get kids excited in the possibilities of becoming amateur scientists at home. Baymax is an even better creation, a hilarious medical assistant who provides Big Hero 6 with most of its humour and a lot of its heart. His stubby legs and portly physique make it hard for him to interact with objects on the ground, so he often spends time slowly chasing something like a ball that he also steadily pushes away. His narrow way of perceiving the world makes for some hilarious throwaway gags—one moment finds him petting a cat gently, softly calling it a “hairy baby.” He even provides the film with its pro-health care message, as Baymax only fully embraces his reprogramming as a superhero when he realizes saving lives from a supervillain can be construed as preventive care for bodily harm. He’s a nifty creation, and lovingly animated.

In fact, Big Hero 6 is a triumph of design across the board. Its setting of San Fransokyo (a hybrid of Tokyo and San Francisco) is a lovely blend of West Coast urban American and traditional Japanese architecture. I love the tiny touch that the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge fan up like the corners of a Buddhist pagoda. Even the characters represent a blend of these two cultures, as Hiro and Tadashi are both Japanese-American. (I have to wonder whether the film takes place in an an alternate present, where Japan invaded America in World War II, akin to the setting of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.)

Big Hero 6 is charming and inventive, thriving within the boundaries of convention. It never subverts those conventions with the same wit and heart as Pixar’s The Incredibles, but sometimes all I want is a big superhero movie to be heroic and genuinely optimistic about the world it depicts. And that’s what Big Hero 6 gives us.

8 out of 10

Big Hero 6 (2014, USA)

Directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams; written by Robert L. Baird, Dan Gerson, and Jordan Roberts based on the comic book by Man of Action; starring Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, Daniel Henney, T. J. Miller, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans Jr., Génesis Rodriguez, Maya Rudolph, Alan Tudyk, and James Cromwell.