With Marvel Comics now securely locked beneath the turrets of Sleeping Beauty's castle, Walt Disney Animation is finally trying their hand at the superhero genre with Big Hero 6; A sanitized adaptation (directed by Chris Williams and Don Hall) of a comic book series so obscure, you'd never guess it was a Marvel property were it not for the obligatory Stan Lee cameo.
Dead set on redirecting his listless little bro, Tadashi introduces Hiro to his merry university geek clique, who will eventually comprise four of the Big 6 to which the title refers: electromagnetic speed demon Go Go (Jamie Chung), obsessive compulsive plasma master Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), bubbly chem whiz Honey Lemon (Génesis Rodríguez), and one-man cheering section Fred (T.J. Miller).
They're a bright, appealing and refreshingly diverse bunch, but they're also underwritten, having barely enough individual screen time to establish their stock personalities in advance of what Disney surely hopes will be numerous sequels. Still, it's enough to inspire Hiro that their "nerd school" is where he belongs. Alas, no sooner does he win admission by dazzling everyone at the university's trade show with his revolutionary microbots, than tragedy robs him once again; This time of his brother.
Though Tadashi is gone, he leaves behind his (and the film's) best invention, Baymax (Scott Adsit), an A.I. healthcare companion that looks like a white vinyl balloon version of Totoro (sans ears). Designed to heal any pain until his patient is satisfied, Baymax is the very distillation of Tadashi's bottomless compassion.
The film struggles mightily as well, but with its tone. Baymax's attempts at therapizing Hiro are often played for adorable levity (“You will be alright. There there,” he recites in his warmly synthetic voice), or for overbearing pathos (“Tadashi is here” becomes a predictable mantra when the film reaches for sentiment), but never evenly or with the deft sensitivity you would think this subject matter necessitates.
The result is a sporadic hit-and-miss comedy that's peppered with dramatic beats it hasn't earned. Every time a sight gag or a tear-jerking tactic is employed, it doesn't feel like it's inclusion is because it's organic to the story, but because the brain trust in the Disney lab has scientifically determined that it's needed at that point to avoid losing one of their audience demographics.
In their mission to please all four quadrants, the committee of filmmakers (writers and directors credited on this project number no less than seven) have also wasted an opportunity to delve into deeper thematic territory. The script immediately shies away from the more complex emotions of grief and mourning as soon as they're hinted at, instead falling back on a simplistic kid-friendly message of "love and empathy = GOOD; anger and vengeance = BAD". Well, can't argue with that moral, I guess. Just a shame that it's delivered in such watered-down terms.
Even the world-building suffers. For a studio that's recently concocted such visually rich worlds as those seen in Tangled and Frozen, the aesthetic of Big Hero 6 is inexcusably plain, with moments of genuine awe being few and far between.
There are some small victories to savour, however. As stated, Baymax is a winning creation, brilliantly animated and legitimately funny enough to elevate the film above its oppressive conventionality. And I can't help but champion its enthusiastic promotion of science education, as well as its progressive nonchalance in depicting women and minorities as commonplace in that field.
Between this, Interstellar, and The Theory of Everything all being released the same weekend, it almost seems as though Hollywood's bent on making science cool again (as though it had ever stopped being cool)! Call it nerd empowerment, of which Big Hero 6 can definitely feel proud. Unfortunately, there's not much else of which it can feel the same.
**1/2 out of ****