Disney has been on a lucrative and creative roll with their tentpole animated features of the last five years, and "Big Hero 6" will not change that. A closer cousin to 2012's rainbow-hued adventure "Wreck-It Ralph
" than to the superior fairy-tale musical stylings of 2010's "Tangled
" and 2013's "Frozen
," this affectionate yarn of a troubled young boy and his unlikely buddythink "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" with a robot in place of an alienhas a huge heart, visual wonder to spare, and a script that could have perhaps used a few pre-production tweaks. Directors Don Hall (2011's "Winnie the Pooh
") and Chris Williams (2008's "Bolt
"), along with co-writers Jordan Roberts (2005's "March of the Penguins
"), Robert L. Baird (2013's "Monsters University
") and Daniel Gerson (2001's "Monsters, Inc.
"), broach certain subjectslike the process of grief and moving forward following the passing of a loved onein a way that, thankfully, have not been sidelined or homogenized for sensitive modern audiences. Death is a tough but necessary topic for discussion, and "Big Hero 6" does it justice until a misguided conclusion that loses its way from the presumed central message.
In the idyllic, bustling metropolis of San Fransokyo, a place where the Bay Area hills and Golden Gate Bridge share space with the neon skyscrapers and cherry blossoms of Tokyo, 14-year-old Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter) is a robotics whiz kid in need of some direction. Although he is a recent high school graduate, he has begun competing in back-alley fights with his mini-bot creationsa hobby that older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) believes is below his talents. Tadashi, a gifted science student excelling at the robotics institute he attends, hopes that Hiro will consider continuing his education. Just as things are starting to look up, tragedy strikes and Tadashi is killed. Hiro's sibling may be gone, but his legacy remains in the invention he left behind: an inflatable health care companion named Baymax (Scott Adsit).
Inspired by the Marvel comic book by Steven T. Seagle and Duncan Rouleau, "Big Hero 6" plays on multiple levels: as a bittersweet comedy about a boy suffering from loss who finds exactly the friend he needs to help him through it, and as a superhero origin story that ultimately pits Hiro, Baymax and a ragtag group of Tadashi's supportive university pals against a kabuki-masked villain using Hiro's stolen neurotransmitter-controlled microbots to assist in his nefarious bidding. Hiro's human cohortsWasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), GoGo Tomago (Jamie Chung), and the very Shaggy-like Fred (T.J. Miller)fulfill their function as eventual sidekicks, but are decidedly unmemorable. Voicing Aunt Cass, Hiro's café-owning guardian/godmother, Maya Rudolph (2013's "The Way Way Back
") brings energy, personality and a few laughs to a neglectful part that never reaches its full potential.
In a film that otherwise might have been lacking in the charm and warmth departments, it is the two key relationships Hiro shares with Tadashi and surrogate companion Baymax where the film most resonates. The bond between siblings who have been by each other's sides all their lives as best friends is specific and unlike any other, and the almost numbing sense of despair that occurs when it is torn apart is accurately and sensitively handled here. Lest it seem as if "Big Hero 6" is full of nothing but doom and gloom, there is a generous helping of humor and lightheartedness on hand as well, with directors Don Hall and Chris Williams doing a nice job of juggling these tonal shifts. Enter Baymax, who offers levity when the movieand Hiroyearn for it most. His whoopee-cushion body and lumbering movements are the source of steady, well-timed physical humor, while his unabashed, hyper-focused goal of making Hiro feel better breeds some lovely moments between these two protagonists.
As is characteristic of Disney's animated oeuvre, "Big Hero 6" is, aesthetically, a vision of pure, impeccable imagination. The concept of a fictional city that combines San Francisco with Japanese culture is a dream beautifully realized. From the lush, looming mountains, to the steep cable-car streets, to Alcatraz Island transformed into a forbidding quarantined laboratory, to the quixotic wind turbines floating overtop the landscape like kites, there isn't a frame that is not worth pausing and simply drinking in. The sights are such a scene-stealer, in fact, that one wishes there were more interludes devoted to simply exploring the setting's geography.
There is no doubt that "Big Hero 6" is a quality family film, one that is well-structured if a bit on the humdrum side when the more action-centric superhero subplot takes over. Nonetheless, the emotion is all there, ready for its big moment in the third act where Hiro must realize that he no longer needs Baymax to press forward in life. This is all very good until the tacked-on final moments arrive. Whether this decision for an ending was the plan all along or the result of higher-ups at Disney demanding there be a "happier," more reassuring close, it was the wrong one, arguably disregarding the very progress Hiro has worked toward for the better part of the picture. If "Big Hero 6" concludes on a dishonest note, there is still no denying its successes as an entertainment of tender, witty accord. And it's pretty. Really, really pretty.