Between Pixar and the more recent rise of Walt Disney Animation Studios, we’ve had a string of remarkably well-crafted animated films. Big Hero 6 isn’t a breakout if we’re comparing to that baseline. But it’s a solid, meat-and-potatoes distillation of the trend.
Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter) is a teenage prodigy in robotics who completed high school early. He lives with his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) and their aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph), in an apartment above the cafe Cass runs in San Fransokyo. The city itself is one of the best things about the movie: an East-meets-West riot of colors, crowds, digital ads, skyscrapers, town homes, elevated trains, floating zeppelins, street cars, Chinese arches, paper lanterns, and more. Throughout the entire movie, and during the action sequences especially, the camera zips through the cityscape with a manic thrill.
Despite his abilities, Hiro is an underachiever who hustles for money in the city’s underground network of robot fighting clubs. Then one night Tadashi – a robotics whiz himself – takes Hiro on a visit to his college laboratory, run by the fatherly Professor Callaghan (James Cromwell). Tadashi’s fellow students in the lab include Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), Go Go (Jamie Chung), Fred (T.J. Miller) and Honey lemon (Genesis Rodriguez). This quartet is the platonic ideal of gender and racial diversity, and they’re presented in broad strokes: Wasabi is a neat freak, Go Go is a sardonic biker, Honey Lemon is a bubbly chemist, and Fred is a beach bum.
But the characterizations, while one-note, are also drawn with a giddy, infectious enthusiasm. And Big Hero 6 carries on Disney’s tradition of ad hoc families created in the wake of tragedy: after a fire at the university kills Tadashi and Callaghan in the first act, it’s genuinely moving to watch the quartet of students rally around Hiro and Cass.
Also left behind is Baymax (Scott Adsit), the robot Tadashi was working on. A cuddly inflatable marshmallow figure surrounding an advanced endoskeleton, Baymax is an all-purpose health care provider, and the robot’s herky-jerky vocalizations and relentless amiable concern is the first thing to break through Hiro’s depression. The boy’s robotics project to qualify for the university was a corker: an amorphous hive of microbots, controlled mentally by a transmitter and capable of forming any structure imaginable. The project was supposedly lost, but Hiro and Baymax quickly discover the fire at the university was a setup by a mysterious villain in Japanese kabuki mask, as cover to steal Hiro’s project.
Hiro decks out Baymax with karate programming and carbon-fiber armor to help hunt down his brother’s killer, and the other four students get in on the act as well. Their technological powers emerge from their characterizations: Wasabi has precision lasers, Go Go rides on magnetically-levitated wheels she can also hurl as weapons, Honey Lemon throws exploding chemical balls, and Fred… well… Fred dresses up as a giant fire breathing lizard with amazing jumping prowess. Big Hero 6 completely skips over how any of these people develop the instincts and skills to use these implements effectively, but what are you gonna do? Meanwhile, the villain uses Hiro’s shapeshifting hive of microbots to ominous and destructive effect.
What directors Don Hall and Jordan Roberts have created here – along with their fellow writers and animators – is essentially a genre exercise in the superhero mold, but with a community rather than an individual. There are several whiz-bang action sequences, particularly a car chase through San Fransokyo and a throwdown fight in an underground bunker.
The story also uses Baymax’s purpose as a health care provider to create genuine moral depth. That Tadashi chose to use his skills for this purpose speaks to his own character, and the responsibility he saw as coming along with his abilities. That in turn becomes a legacy of sorts to Hiro. Baymax helps Hiro because his programming identifies their quest as something that will heal Hiro emotionally. But his programming also prevents him from doing anyone any actual harm, and there is a genuinely dark and disturbing sequence in which Hiro – driven by rage and the need for vengeance – rejiggers Baymax’s protocols to make the robot capable of killing. The sense of violation in the aftermath of that decision is palpable, and Big hero 6 wisely allows Hiro to have real flaws and a capacity for real destruction, which in turn lends moral weight to his character arc.
It isn’t as rich as The Incredibles, nor does it flirt with the existential in the same way as Wreck-It-Ralph. But Big Hero 6 is gorgeous (absolutely see it in 3D), fast-paced, as well as an effective genre exercise. It also packs genuine moral and emotional depth.
An addendum: As has become standard practice, Big hero 6 is preceded by a short animated film. In this case it’s Feast, which gives the audience a puppy’s-eye view of the joys and travails of love and family. It’s gorgeously animated, in the same hybrid style as last year’s Paperman (though in color), with some of the most creative and compelling shot choices and direction I’ve seen all year. In five minutes, it gives you a protagonist who is adorable, complex, flawed, and capable of self-reclamation – and it does so without a single line of dialogue. Feast is a small marvel of cinematic storytelling, and is worth the price of admission all by itself.