BIG HERO 6 Movie Review – Another Triumph for Disney Animation
For the better part of two decades, Pixar Animation Studios has been the gold standard when it comes to family-oriented animation, but Disney’s Animation division – also headed, it should be added, by Pixar’s John Lasseter – has made significant inroads to that particular claim. Between Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, and Frozen, each one a hit with moviegoers and critics, each one arguably deserving of “classic” status (and stature), Disney Animation’s recent track record has been practically flawless. Their latest release, Big Hero 6, a loose adaptation of a relatively unknown Marvel comic book series, fits comfortably in that mold, offering soaring visuals, inventive set pieces, and a surprisingly honest, surprisingly genuine look at grief and the grieving process, all wrapped up in a promising superhero origin story.
When we first meet Big Hero 6’s central character, “boy genius” Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter), he’s participating in illegal bot combat, using his big brain and street smarts to hustle a much larger opponent. It takes Hiro’s older, wiser brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney), to save him him from a physical beating after Hiro soundly beats his opponent. Apparently, Hiro’s rebellious behavior isn’t anything new, so Tadashi hits on a new strategy to get Hiro back on a socially acceptable track: Tadashi’s college, San Fransokyo Tech, and the so-called “Nerd Lab” Tadashi calls a second home. There, Hiro meets Tadashi’s appropriately multi-cultural, multi-ethnic friends, Go Go Tomago (Jamie Chung), Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), and Fred (T.J. Miller). Fred isn’t a student, just a science fanboy (in the Big Hero 6 universe, there’s nothing cooler than science).
Big Hero 6 only gives us a glimpse of Hiro and Tadashi’s relationship, orphaned brothers raised by an aunt, Cass (Maya Rudolph), before tragedy permanently separates the two brothers. Tadashi loses his life in a lab explosion moments after Hiro successfully demonstrates the revolutionary invention, micro-bots controlled via neural interface, to a packed, rapt audience. Hiro’s successful invention gives him automatic entry into San Fransokyo Tech. To the considerable credit of co-directors Don Hall and Chris Williams and their screenwriting team, Robert L. Baird, Jordan Roberts, and Daniel Gerson, Big Hero 6 doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the Tadashi’s loss and the impact of that loss on Hiro’s mental and emotional health. Tadashi’s last invention, Baymax (Scott Adsit), an extremely huggable, inflatable “persona healthcare companion,” activates when Hiro needs him most.
It takes the better part of Big Hero 6’s running time before Hiro recognizes Baymax as the benevolent caretaker his brother intended and not as a weapon of mass destruction. That particular lesson isn’t one usually associated with the superhero genre on film or in comic books, but it’s one family-oriented audiences will surely appreciate. Not that Big Hero 6 shies away from the familiar tropes of the superhero origin story. It doesn’t; far from it, actually. With the help of his brother’s ethnically diverse friends (sadly underdeveloped as characters), Hiro takes the first tentative steps toward becoming a science-based superhero, outfitting Baymax with external armor, wings, and weapons. Hiro also upgrades Tadashi’s friends with costumes and weapons of their own so they can help him pursue the kabuki-mask villain and micro-bot overlord Hiro holds responsible for the death of his brother. Along the way, Hiro and Baymax (and later the team) take viewers on a tour of San Fransokyo, as the name implies a hybrid of San Francisco and Tokyo.
San Fransokyo mixes, matches, and melds seemingly diverse architectural styles and time periods. To borrow an oft-used description when a particular city, real or imagined, makes a singular impression on moviegoers, San Fransokyo is practically a character in Big Hero 6, as culturally and ethnically diverse as it is architecturally. Hall and Williams make good use of San Fransokyo, both as eye-catching background and as a constant reminder that Big Hero 6 exists in a familiar, but not too familiar, universe. Ultimately, however, it’s not San Fransokyo or the admittedly predictable superhero origin story that will impress moviegoers, but Big Hero 6’s handling of the aftermath of Tadashi’s death with sensitivity, tact, and compassion, something that’s both entirely unexpected and completely welcome. It’s also something Big Hero 6’s live-action counterparts in the Marvel Cinematic Universe could learn from.