When Frozen came out last year, I was mostly charmed by it (a hamfisted villain-turn in the third act aside), but as the raves continued, as “Let It Go”, which wasn’t even my favorite song in the film, became tiresomely ubiquitous, as it became hailed as a masterpiece when, all things considered, I felt it was a solid notch below Brave (which I still contend was the better girl-power fantasy)…I began to weary of it, and when it went toe-to-toe with the markedly superior The Wind Rises for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, I rooted for Miyazaki to pull an upset. It wasn’t to be.
Then, when the trailers for Big Hero 6 started dropping, I got excited–here, it seemed, was a film more up my alley. The material and aesthetic were compelling, and Baymax was primed to be a grand scene-stealer. And so he was. And the film looked good and had a lot of potential. It was lighthearted, colorful entertainment, that kept me engaged. And yet a thin plot, a drab villain, and an underdeveloped supporting cast keep from being a great or truly memorable film.
The story takes place some time in the future, when San Francisco has become “San Fransokyo” (I’d love to see the backstory on that). Underground robot fighting is a popular sport, and young Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), using bots of his own creation, is quite successful at it–which proves a liability when his victims don’t lose gracefully. Rescued from one such opponent by his older brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney), he is admonished to turn his energies to more productive ends, like getting accepted at Tadashi’s alma mater, which hosts a top-line robotics lab. Tadashi shows Hiro his own project, a health-care robot called Baymax (Scott Adsit).
Hiro decides to apply for admission, and presents his creation–micro-bots which can be controlled by a brain-wave sensor, and which can combine in any configuration the wearer of the sensor desires. His presentation impresses Professor Callaghan (James Cromwell), Tadashi’s mentor, as well as Alistair Krei (Alan Tudyk), a tech tycoon whom Callaghan clearly dislikes. Rejecting Krei’s offer to mass-produce the micro-bots, Hiro and Tadashi are leaving when a fire breaks out; Tadashi attempts to save Callaghan and is killed, along with Callaghan, in the process.
Devastated by Tadashi’s death, Hiro withdraws into his room, despite the concerns of his aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph), who urges him to go to school; one day, he accidentally activates Baymax, who recommends that he resume socializing as a means of recuperation; this brings him into contact with Tadashi’s inner circle: Fred (T.J. Miller), GoGo Tomago (Jamie Chung), Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), and Honey Lemon (Génesis Rodriguez). Hiro also notices that his only remaining micro-bot (the rest thought destroyed in the fire) is acting as if it were trying to connect with other micro-bots; he and Baymax allow it to lead them to a warehouse where a machine with Krei’s logo is manufacturing micro-bots by the thousands.
A mysterious figure in a Kabuki mask (which, Hiro concludes, contains the brain-wave sensor) attacks them, and they narrowly escape; they go to the police, but are not believed. Convincing Baymax that discovering the identity of this figure, who must be responsible for Tadashi’s death, will help him emotionally heal, he outfits Baymax with armor which allows to fly and fight; Fred, GoGo, Wasabi, and Honey Lemon insist on helping him, and are given outfits of their own:
- Fred is given a Godzilla-esque suit which breathes fire;
- GoGo is given a pair of axle-less wheels which allow her to move at great speed, and double as discuses;
- Wasabi is given a pair of energy blades which enable him to cut through virtually anything;
- Honey Lemon, a chemical expert, is given a special purse which combines elements to form any desired compound.
The team goes after the mysterious figure, ultimately discovering their identity, their motive, and prevailing in ways that leave plenty of room for a sequel.
What is most frustrating about Big Hero 6 is the ratio of its potential to its achievement. I won’t say that the characters are the richest or deepest that Disney has ever tackled, but they get surprisingly little to do. Hiro is a pretty typical teenage protagonist; a dash of rebelliousness, a bit of a temper, but with an underlying optimism. Tadashi is the serious older brother (with a lighter side to his nature); Fred is the wacky, Shaggy-esque goofball, GoGo is the no-nonsense tomboy, Wasabi is the nervous, “are-you-sure-we-should-be-doing-this” type, and Honey Lemon is the spacey, airy, Professor Trelawney type. They’re all perfectly likable, but based on this film alone, it’s hard to imagine anyone having lasting affection for them.
The same cannot be said of Baymax, a delightful fellow who steals the show completely (and might top Frozen’s Olaf); his deadpan style (“Diagnosis: puberty!” might be my favorite line of the year), cuddly-by-design appearance and demeanor, and moral reliability make him the kind of sidekick we’ve all probably wanted at one time or another. Apparently the film’s Baymax is essentially Disney’s creation, and I don’t mind that a bit. Baymax is one of the most purely likable film characters of the year.
(Spoilers) And then there’s our villain. It turns out that Professor Callaghan is the masked figure, and he’s seeking revenge on Krei for an accident wherein his daughter was stranded in a trans-dimensional void, seemingly forever. In the big climax, he opens up a new portal and intends to throw Krei into it, but Baymax discovers that Callaghan’s daughter is still inside, and he and Hiro go to retrieve her; in the process, an accident forces Baymax to stay behind. Callaghan is arrested (but his daughter is alive), Hiro discovers that Baymax gave him his programming card, and builds a new Baymax, before dubbing himself and his companions “Big Hero 6”. Roll credits.
On one hand, it’s nice to see a villain (perhaps “antagonist” is more accurate, though he seems pretty unfazed by Tadashi’s death) with a realistic motivation, and to have a climax which is based on saving the life of a fairly unsympathetic character (Krei is still kind of a sleaze). But despite this, Callaghan remains a flat, rather uninspired character; you get where he’s coming from, you want him to get his comeuppance, but in the end, it’s hard to really care. Cromwell’s voice acting doesn’t help much, as he brings little verve to the table, and that ultimately leaves something of a hole at the film’s center. (End spoilers)
And since the film’s narrative is already a pretty basic team origin-story, it comes down to the characters and the world-building to give it distinction. And as I said, the characters are pleasant, but never really catch fire; the revelation that Fred is actually incredibly wealthy (despite his scruffy nature) is kind of a thin joke, and GoGo, who has quite a bit of potential on her own, mostly glowers, kicks ass, and counterbalances Honey Lemon and Aunt Cass; Cass in particular is saddled with a lot of tired “harried-mother (figure)” material, with jokes about “stress eating” and such. Wasabi and Honey, likewise, are fun in the moment, but don’t really stick with one.
I’m glad Disney tackled a property with a sort of futuro-Japanese aesthetic (and with an ethnically Japanese protagonist), but in practice, it’s just window-dressing. San Fransokyo is a cool idea for a city, and has some neat touches (like the floating wind turbines which Hiro and Baymax relax on), but aside from the opening glimpse of underground robot fights, it remains fairly unexplored. The film makes fine use of color and is consistently attractive, but compared to the worlds of Frozen and Ralph, it underwhelms.
The voice acting is generally solid, which helps. I’m not sure what re-mixing was necessary to make Adsit’s voice properly robotic, but his brightly deadpan tone is sheer joy. Potter keeps Hiro from falling into “sullen teenager” tropes. Miller embraces Fred’s zaniness wholeheartedly; Wayans does likewise with Wasabi, and Rodriguez is appropriately bubbly as Honey. GoGo has comparatively little dialogue, but Chung is fine. Rudolph does what she can with Cass’ rather hackneyed material.
Henry Jackman’s score is fun, and Fall Out Boy’s “Immortals” might be a reasonable Oscar nominee in a year that’s been horribly short on Best Song contenders. (Seriously, it’s been awful. Or I just haven’t been paying attention.) The sound effects, as one would expect, are top-notch. It’s a typically solid Disney production, need I say more?
There’s really not much to say. Big Hero 6 is bright, lighthearted family entertainment, perfect for a Sunday afternoon at the movies. On its own, it’s as well done as you would expect a Disney film to be. That it doesn’t have much staying power is unfortunate, but it hardly makes it a worthless film. Just a slightly disappointing one.