When Pixar came on the scene and every film they produced became certified gold, it seemed that Walt Disney Animation – the studio which produced the world’s first feature length animated film and countless classics since – was no longer the pinnacle of American animation. Disney (the corporation) acquired Pixar in 2006, clearly recognizing the talent (and profit) of the upstart animation studio.
And while Pixar Animation and Walt Disney Animation remain distinctly separate studios, it’s evident that the latter has seen a resurgence in the years following their absorption of many of Pixar’s brightest; specifically Edwin Catmull and John Lasseter, who became President and Chief Creative Officer of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation, respectively.
Now, the reason for this very brief and in no way all encompassing history lesson is this: Big Hero 6 is Walt Disney Animation’s eighth film since they and Pixar became so close knit, and it is without a doubt the studio’s most Pixar-ish film to date. That is to say, Big Hero 6 wins over audiences with its heartfelt story rather than relying on flashy action sequences or silly humor (though it has those things, too).
Based on the little-known Marvel comic of the same name (a result of another of corporate Disney’s savvy business deals), the original Big Hero 6 and this animated film bear little resemblance to one another beyond the title, character names, and setting. In this film, the superhero element is only one facet of the story being told, which focuses more so on grief, friendship, and how helping someone is the most heroic thing any of us can do.
Set in the fantastical hybrid city of San Fransokyo, Big Hero 6 finds 14-year-old Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter) using his genius to win at underground robot fighting. Irritated that his younger brother is wasting his potential, Tadashi (Daniel Henney) convinces Hiro to visit him at college – San Fransokyo Institute of Technology. Hoping to inspire the young robotics genius to use his talents towards something more fulfilling, Tadashi introduces Hiro to Professor Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell) – head of robotics and Tadashi’s mentor – as well as his latest project, Baymax (Scott Adsit) – a personal healthcare robot who’s adorably non-threatening appearance looks like a cross between Hayao Miyazaki’s Totoro and a marshmallow.
Tadashi also introduces Hiro to his friends: bubbly chemistry whiz Honey Lemon (Génesis Rodríguez), tough speedster GoGo Tomago (Jamie Chung), overly cautious laser expert Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.), and Fred (T.J. Miller), a laid back comic book fan and science enthusiast and also the school’s mascot.
They – but more importantly Tadashi’s creation, Baymax – become extremely important to Hiro after his brother is killed during a massive explosion at the school’s latest robotics expo. Devastated over the loss of his brother, Hiro doesn’t pursue schooling at the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology like he had planned and instead becomes reclusive, shutting out his new friends.
And it’s this journey for Hiro, his coming to terms with the death of his brother that is what Big Hero 6 is about more than superheroes, masked villains, conspiracies, and flying robots (though, again, it has that, too). There with Hiro every step of the way is Baymax, the cuddly nurse robot who sees Hiro as his patient and not until Hiro is again mentally well will he deactivate. Their relationship is the heart of Big Hero 6, and it is so beautifully done that the pair come close to rivaling Carl and Russel of Pixar’s Up when it comes to loveable odd couples. And yes, the fact that in both cases one character is struggling with loss hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Pixar made its name by focusing on story and character before anything else, and that was in fact Disney’s mantra at one point, too. Those who began Pixar were fans of Disney’s brightest eras, and it’s rather fitting that everything is now coming full circle with Walt Disney Animation earning its heritage by again producing heartfelt tales with characters that are fully-realized, charming, and relatable (Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen).
Without a doubt the real star of Big Hero 6 is Baymax – a character with very limited facial expressions, but yet is able to convey much thanks to his clever design, amusing movement (“I am not fast.“), and the remarkable voice work of Scott Adsit (30 Rock‘s Pete Hornberger!). Baymax is easily the most fascinating character of Big Hero 6, and manages to provide not only quite a bit of the film’s comedy (for instance, fist-bumping will never be the same) but also poignant realizations that only an innocent robot whose concern is the well-being of his patient would make.
Understandably, the rest of the Big Hero 6 team isn’t given nearly as much development or back story but they still form an interesting and diverse group for Hiro to lead. Honey Lemon, Gogo, Wasabi, and Fred are a quirky bunch and their given power sets work well to give the film some marvelous action sequences. Surprisingly, out of this group it’s Fred that’s given the most development. T.J. Miller gives this slacker nerd a good amount of enthusiasm and heart, and turns what could very easily have been a one-note, comedic character into an integral member of the group. Plus, his dad turns out to be an excellent cameo. Definitely plan on sticking around after the credits.
Beyond its touching story of a boy learning to grieve with the help of his friendly robot, Big Hero 6 is also an enjoyable superhero romp but it fails to reach the heights of something like Pixar’s The Incredibles. The mystery around Tadashi’s death and how it’s connected to a masked villain who stole Hiro’s designs for revolutionary microbots, plus Hiro, Baymax, and the rest of the gang’s resulting adventure to track him down are pretty predictable.
(Slight SPOILER here, but I’d like to note that Alan Tudyk has become Disney’s go-to actor when they need a villainous character who isn’t actually the villain, but he plays smarmy assholes so well.)
The superhero side of this story hits all the notes of a team’s origin as if it were simply going down a list, but it’s made bearable and entertaining thanks to its engaging characters and outright stunning visuals. Those expecting these characters to suit up and fight evil right from the get go may be disappointed, but in all honesty the action and fighting is the least interesting part of Big Hero 6.
The film is a treat to look at it, with San Franksokyo coming off as a fully realized city you could catch a flight to and visit right now, but still with plenty of futuristic touches. Along with the great personalities of its characters, their designs – both in costume and out – are great and will surely be on any cosplayer’s list. Though, it’s actually Baymax who loses a little of his personality once suited up, but that dichotomy between his primary function as a healer and Hiro’s urging him to be a fighter plays a large role in this film’s third act.
Disney most definitely has another smash hit on their hands. It may not reach quite the level of last year’s Frozen, but it’ll undoubtedly be the highest grossing animated film this year. Couple that with the lucrative merchandising that will come from everyone wanting their own Baymax to hug and squeeze (myself included), and sequels seem inevitable.
Big Hero 6 is sure to please children and their parents, plus any fans of a good story with lovable characters, laugh out loud gags, and striking visuals. Were its plot a little less predictable, Big Hero 6 would be a knockout, but it’s still a charming film that deals with loss and the importance of friendship in a sincere and entertaining way.