by Matt Levine
Full disclosure: I’m sick of superhero movies. When they’re not brooding and gravely self-serious (thanks, Christopher Nolan), they’re following the trusted formula of puckish misfits finding the perseverance to quash the villain’s egomaniacal, power-hungry schemes. Even a comparatively fresh superhero outing like Guardians of the Galaxy feels a little too assembly-line manufactured to act as more than a pleasant diversion; that movie’s amiable, wisecracking personality does an excellent job disguising the fact that it still adheres slavishly to big-budget formula.
Directors: Don Hall, Chris Williams
Producer: Roy Conli
Writers: Jordan Roberts, Daniel Gerson, Robert L. Baird, Don Hall (story), Paul Briggs (head of story), Joseph Mateo (head of story), Man of Action (concept and characters)
Editor: Tim Mertens
Music: Henry Jackman
Voices of: Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, Daniel Henney, T.J. Miller, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans Jr., Genesis Rodriguez, James Cromwell, Alan Tudyk, Maya Rudolph, Abraham Benrubi
US Theatrical Release: November 7, 2014
US Distributor: Walt Disney Studios
Given that Marvel Studios’ newest release Big Hero 6 features sparkling computer animation and an emphasis on comedy—not unlike The Incredibles (2004), one of the few superhero movies of this century that I unabashedly love—I’d hoped that this Marvel outing might provide a welcome respite from the Thors and Captain Americas that Hollywood loves peddling. While Big Hero 6 is often laugh-out-loud funny and pays surprisingly sincere attention to the feelings of grief and insignificance experienced by its characters, that contradictory balance of goofy humor and solemn pathos reeks of audience manipulation and is sometimes approached through mind-numbing obviousness.
Based on a series of Marvel comics that premiered in 1998 (which have little in common with the film adaptation), Big Hero 6 is set in the near-future city of San Fransokyo (an amusingly unexplained tidbit that points to the story’s Japanese influences, especially the aesthetic and subject matter of anime). Fourteen-year-old Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter) is a genius when it comes to micro-robotics, though he wastes his talent (and earns a fortune) hustling “professional” bot-builders in robot fights held in seedy basements. Following the death of his parents when he was three years old, Hiro and his equally brilliant older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) move in with their aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph), by whom they were raised. In an effort to convince him that he’s wasting his talent, Tadashi takes Hiro to visit his robotics laboratory at the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology, a wonderland of hi-tech inventions that convinces Hiro almost instantaneously to pursue a college education (he’s already graduated from high school, improbably).
This backstory moves at an agreeably rapid pace, but there’s little of interest here, at least in the execution. Only a single line of dialogue informs us that Hiro’s parents are dead, and his technological prowess is introduced via a predictable prologue whose jokes can be detected minutes before they happen. At Tadashi’s lab, Hiro meets the gang of lovable nerds who will eventually form his superhero posse. They’re a multiracial, gender-diverse squad with broad, generic characteristics to distinguish them—GoGo (Jamie Chung) is the tomboy, Honey (Genesis Rodriguez) the purse-toting princess, Fred (T.J. Miller) the laid-back stoner type, Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.) the pragmatic black guy—and they develop only a scarce amount of depth as the movie progresses. Clearly Big Hero 6 is in a hurry to get where it’s going; it doesn’t exactly have time for character development or emotional introspection.
Hiro decides to debut his new invention at a prestigious science gala attended by the president of Tadashi’s college, Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell), as well as by the shady CEO of a powerful robotics company, Alistair Krei (Alan Tudyk). Both Callaghan and Krei immediately see the potential (financial and otherwise) of Hiro’s innovation: an army of microbots which can be controlled telepathically using a cranial transmitter, allowing them to form anything the user desires, from vehicles to multi-story buildings to powerful weapons. There is great potential in this scene for absurd comedy, with a gaggle of ambitious scientists debuting their prized experiments, but sadly the movie skips right over their inventions to push the plot ahead. The movie has a one-track narrative mind, whereas a more agile comedy might have taken the time to amuse the audience with this unique environment and cast of characters.
Thankfully Big Hero 6 kicks into gear shortly thereafter: Hiro’s invention goes up in flames as the Institute of Technology is destroyed by a fire (which any viewer can logically guess was not an accident). Tragically, Hiro’s microbots weren’t the only things inside: Tadashi and Callaghan appear to die in the fire as well, the kind of tragic origin story so favored by superhero sagas of this kind. Give the movie credit for taking Hiro’s trauma seriously: though he’s been accepted by the university, he skips classes for weeks, ignoring the pleas of his aunt and Tadashi’s labmates, who realize they must keep working in spite of their grief. A surprising number of children’s movies focus on loss and death and mourning (Up being the most heartbreaking example), and even if Big Hero 6 approaches tragedy through heartwarming platitudes, it offers a worthwhile message of coping with heartache with hope rather than defeatism.
It’s in the depths of Hiro’s depression that he accidentally awakens one of Tadashi’s inventions: a health-care robot named Baymax (Scott Adsit) who has been programmed to address humans’ injuries and heal them whenever possible. A docile, lumbering giant encased in a white-vinyl fat-suit, Baymax looks like the Michelin man and speaks with the mellow civility of C3PO. A scene in which Baymax tries to remedy his punctured suit by stealing copious amounts of Scotch tape from a police station might be the movie’s highlight, a comedic setpiece distinguished by its impeccable timing. Shortly thereafter, suffering from depleted battery power, Baymax stumbles home in what looks like a drunken stupor, barely held upright by poor Hiro. This middle portion of the film is by far the strongest, and even if the leaps from drama to comedy aren’t always handled well (the film rather lazily tries to have it both ways), they’re highly entertaining and ingratiating.
Before long, Hiro, Baymax, and Tadashi’s former lab partners form an unlikely squadron of superheroes, relying upon their scientific ingenuity to battle a Kabuki-masked villain who has stolen Hiro’s microbots. Once Big Hero 6 makes it to its climactic third act, much of the creativity and affability goes out the window: it’s a long, predictable standoff between the wisecracking heroes and the sniveling villain, whose identity might be guessed by more attentive viewers. At least the badguy’s motivation ties into the predominant theme of loss and retribution, but it’s also introduced so abruptly that it’s hard to take seriously on a dramatic level. The action-packed climax is overlong, haphazard, and disappointingly short on laughs. There’s a bittersweet sacrifice that’s undeniably affecting (thanks again to Baymax’s lovability), but it’s also reversed almost immediately with an illogical plot reveal. As a whole, Big Hero 6 is satisfying in a proficient, manipulative way; how much it charms you depends on how avidly you let down your defenses and allow yourself to be strung along.
There’s plenty to like about the movie: its brightly-colored computer animation, though praising a big-budget movie for its pristine animation is pretty much a given by now; its general amiability, thanks primarily to a sidekick who only the coldest hearts could refuse; and a semi-sincere attempt to grapple with adult themes of death and coping. Too bad such commendable themes are approached with afterschool-special obviousness and a clumsy inability to shift between its various emotional registers. One might argue that such a direct approach is apt for a movie ostensibly geared towards kids, although that didn’t stop movies such as Ernest & Celestine or Wall-E or Wreck-It Ralph from conveying their themes with subtlety and aesthetic grace. But even if Big Hero 6 is flawed in its delivery, it’s simply a hard movie to dislike; as muddled and simplistic as it is, it’s also warmhearted, amusing, and never dull. Like the irresistible Baymax robot at its core, it simply wants to make you feel good—and at a certain point it’s futile to resist.