At the intersection of Disney and Marvel, in a pan-Pacific megalopolis spanning San Francisco and Tokyo, in a world with one foot in science fiction and one in superhero adventure, is Big Hero 6.
By my lights, this is a very good place to be.
Big Hero 6 might be the geekiest Hollywood cartoon of all time, eclipsing the goofy science enthusiasm of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, the video-game nostalgia of Wreck-It Ralph and the sci-fi worlds of Lilo & Stitch, Treasure Planet and Robots. Well, maybe the time-bending Meet the Robinsons gives it a run for its money, but Big Hero 6 is a better film.
Like Disney’s mega-hit Frozen, Big Hero 6 is about siblings and superpowers, except the one true superpower is intelligence — and education. One sibling whips up a puffy, white, nonhuman companion who loves giving warm hugs, and the other learns to generate complex, towering structures with a thought — but it’s not an unexplained quirk of magic; it’s technology and hard work.
Big Hero 6 revolves around 14-year-old Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), an underachieving robotics prodigy who squanders his talents making quick bucks on underground robot-battle betting. That’s before his responsible older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) expands his horizons, turning him on to the possibilities of channeling his talent into more productive directions.
It helps that Hiro and Tadashi live in “San Fransokyo,” a semi-futuristic world city with streetcars hung with paper lanterns, torii arches on the Golden Gate Bridge and a skyline strangely adorned with blimps. Following Pacific Rim and The Wolverine, Big Hero 6 is an East-meets-West adventure for the global market. Some Asians may understandably resent the semi-Occidentalization of a comic-book franchise originally unambiguously set in Japan — but then Big Hero 6 was created by two Americans for a Marvel comic centered in, um, Canada, so perhaps we needn’t be purists.
Tadashi’s a student at “nerd school,” San Fransokyo’s Institute of Technology, where fellow nerds learn to make cool dreams into realities. Once Hiro gets a taste of what’s possible, he discovers that, like most Disney protagonists, he does yearn for something more after all: More than anything, he wants to make the grade at nerd school. The dreams of Ariel and Aladdin were pedestrian by comparison.
It has been a while since I’ve seen anything in an animated film as ridiculously cool as Hiro’s application project to get into nerd school. Ah, but Hiro’s project pales beside Tadashi’s masterpiece: a robot so cutting-edge that it is in fact soft and squishy, with no edges at all. Baymax (Scott Adsit) is an inflatable, vinyl-skinned robot with a carbon-fiber skeleton, inspired by research into soft robotics witnessed by directors Chris Williams (Bolt) and Don Hall during a research trip to Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics lab.
Programmed as a personal health-care robot, Baymax’s demeanor is as gentle and nonthreatening as his balloonish appearance — at least his appearance until Hiro tricks him out with increasingly intimidating upgrades to serve the needs of the moment. Even then, Baymax never loses his essential sweetness. He’s the funniest, most winsome animated sidekick in years.
Of course Hiro and Tadashi are orphans, raised from childhood by their hardworking, likable Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph). In Tadashi’s fellow nerds at school, Hiro finds an adoptive family of sorts, as conveniently diverse as an episode of Clifford.
Following the comics, each has a different specialty as well as a quirky nickname: Gruff engineering whiz GoGo Tomago (Jamie Chung), timid laser specialist Wasabi (Damon Wayans), bubbly chemistry expert Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) and dropout class clown Fredzilla (T.J. Miller).
The characterizations are one-note, and Wasabi in particular is too often the butt of comic-relief jokes, but it’s refreshing to see a Hollywood cartoon in which both girls and guys can be smart and competent, and nearly everyone is likable and decent.
Nearly everyone, of course, but the obligatory mystery villain, an ominous figure in a kabuki mask. Actual Japanese cartoons sometimes manage to dispense with traditional villains, but Disney hasn’t learned to do this, and, anyway, at some point, Big Hero 6 has to get around to being a superhero story.
That’s almost too bad, since the things that are freshest about it have nothing to do with the comic-book genre. At least the conflict grows organically out of the story, and the action, with the San Fransokyo setting, is the sort of thing 3-D was invented for.
Like the robot pals in The Iron Giant and T2: Judgment Day, Baymax winds up exceeding his original programming — but where those robots were weapons humanized by bonding with a young boy, Baymax is a caregiver who becomes weaponized. Instead of the boy teaching the robot that it’s wrong to kill, the moral lesson ultimately goes the other way.
Themes of grief and loss are common in family films, but Big Hero 6 deals with them with a rare directness, adding darker notes of revenge fantasy and egocentrism. Where Frozen shied away from the darkness of Elsa’s intended trajectory, Big Hero 6 allows Hiro real moral flaws and real redemption.
Family audiences have had a rough time lately. Last year, there wasn’t much beyond Monsters University and Frozen. This year, there has been very little beyond The LEGO Movie, a movie with lots of cleverness but little emotional resonance. This film has plenty of both.
Big Hero 6 may be a little too glib to reach the heights of The Incredibles or The Iron Giant, but if you can’t have Brad Bird, this is pretty much the next best thing.
P.S. Big Hero 6 is preceded by Feast, an adorable, wordless short in the 3-D hybrid hand-drawn/computer animated style of 2012’s Paperman. Feast offers a dog’s-eye view on the ups and downs of his owner’s social life, seen through the lens of what C.S. Lewis, describing a bear’s point of view in That Hideous Strength, called “cupboard loves.”
In six minutes, Feast is hilarious, endearing, touching and finally uplifting in a way I can’t even convey without spoiling it. These days, even the best animated features are often surpassed by the short features preceding them, and that’s the case here. Don’t miss it in 3-D.
Caveat Spectator: Stylized action and peril; some rude humor; thematic elements. Might be a bit too much for sensitive youngsters.