Few words feel more apt in describing Marvel’s recent domination of mainstream cinema than “inevitable.” When, a week and a half ago, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige announced his company’s release slate, through Walt Disney Pictures, for the next 5 years, it was mildly criticized, in part because it’s a bit exhausting to know which movies will be the talk of the Internet in 2019. It was inevitable that Feige announced a two-part Avengers sequel, just as it’s inevitable that even many skeptics will likely see those films within the first few weeks of their respective openings. So too was it inevitable that Walt Disney Animation Studios would use the Marvel library to make a new film, something guaranteed as soon as the Walt Disney Company announced that it purchased Marvel a few years ago. And so we have Big Hero 6, based on a fairly obscure miniseries of comic books, which does end up sharing some problems most live-action Marvel movies sport. That being said, this is a thoroughly delightful, colorful, exciting entree into a world designed as a gleefully mashed-up cultural hybrid.
Perhaps the most fantastical, and thrilling, notion in Big Hero 6 is the idea that innovation in science should not only be encouraged, but is widespread worldwide. As the film opens in the city of San Fransokyo, a grand mix of Asian and NoCal style, 13-year old Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter) is caught by his older brother Tadashi in the middle of a back-alley robot-fighting battle, replete with illegal gambling. (It’s not exactly Pleasure Island in Pinocchio.) Tadashi studies at the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology with a motley group of friends who experiment with laser technology, robotics, and more; a late-night visit inspires Hiro to apply by taking part in a science showcase to impress Tadashi’s mentor (James Cromwell). Though his robotics display goes over well, a mysterious figure causes a fire that destroys the building and kills the courageous Tadashi. All Hiro has left is Tadashi’s primary experiment, a health-care robot named Baymax (Scott Adsit), and a massive sense of loss. To fill the void, the boy convinces himself that he needs to avenge his brother’s death; it’s this quest that eventually unites Hiro with Tadashi’s friends, from the tough-minded Go Go (Jamie Chung) to the laid-back Fred (T.J. Miller).
Though there’s a fair deal of setup in Big Hero 6, it’s dispensed with the right mix of pathos and slapstick-driven action. (This, more than Disney’s other recent animated films, is arguably the most baldly emotional, in the vein of Pixar’s best.) In the early scenes, what makes this film stand out are the clear stakes; it’s important to spend time with Hiro and Tadashi, so that when the latter dies, we feel his absence as much as Hiro does. The relationship that follows between Hiro and Baymax may have its roots in films like The Iron Giant and even Terminator 2, but co-directors Don Hall and Chris Williams as well as screenwriters Jordan Roberts, Daniel Gerson, and Robert L. Baird find inventive ways to make this duo feel unique. Baymax, in particular, is given meta roots–it describes its design as “nonthreatening and huggable”–but thanks to Adsit’s performance and some solid visual humor, feels like more than just an excuse to sell myriad toys over the holidays.
Where Big Hero 6 stumbles, and only slightly, is in some of its plot machinations and the third-act climax. The major twist in the film brings to mind Roger Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters, clarifying that there are no unnecessary characters in movies. The antagonist’s nefarious plot unfolding in the end calls to mind many of Marvel’s live-action climaxes, in that it’s an attack on a large building in a large city; what success this sequence achieves is by being exquisitely animated and having a slightly madcap sense of play throughout. That’s true of the entirety of the film, which is brought to life in a bright and poppy fashion. The most notable visual element may be the microbots Hiro creates, which are separately miniscule but are manipulated in whole via a mental transmitter; when both Hiro and the villain use these microbots, it’s a jaw-dropping effect. And when Hiro discovers exactly how far his scientific background can take him, essentially creating superheroic abilities for himself and his team, culminating in a moment where Baymax flies through the city with ease, it’s equally exciting, calling to mind the giddy sequence in The Incredibles when Dash finally gets to run as fast as he can while outrunning some baddies. The best films from Walt Disney Animation Studios offer countless examples of how limitless the animated form can be; in its best moments, Big Hero 6 approaches that infinite possibility. It’s easily Disney’s best computer-animated film to date.
The support around the core of the film works to the point where it’s easy to wish there was more of characters like Go Go and Fred as well as Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.) and Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez). They become more important in the second half, but all of them manage to feel charming enough that a bit more of them (as well as more of the world of San Fransokyo, whose more specific details are given color and life in the first half only) would’ve been welcome. But Big Hero 6 is cohesive, fully realized, and unexpectedly beautiful in ways that don’t often feel natural to Marvel’s live-action movies. Its emotion feels honest and earned, and its various inspirations don’t weigh so heavily that they distract. (Also, it’s hard to fault a movie that, at least visually, tips its hat to My Neighbor Totoro.) This is the kind of movie Marvel should be announcing, because it’s something worth getting excited about.
Note. As with other recent Walt Disney Animation Studios releases, Big Hero 6 is preceded by an animated short, this one called Feast. The setup is simple: the ups and downs of a modern romance from the vantage point of the guy’s dog; all of the action takes place as the dog eats his meal, whether it’s dog food or (more often) human foods ranging from nachos to meatballs. There’s more than a hint of Disney’s exemplary short Paperman, not just in the sweetly sentimental tone but in the striking visual palette. Here, the mix of hand-drawn and CG is slightly less obvious–the stylization of each object and character seems borne from a computer–but it’s still a charming and pretty bit of animation. And, as it should be, the short mines the dog’s reactions (as well as his owner’s arguably poor dietary habits) for laughs, with a breakneck pace to match its main character’s personality.