Disney does Marvel at least as well as Marvel does, with this gift of a film proving itself hilarious, exciting, touching, sad, and inspirational all at once.
This adorable tale of a boy, his inflatable robot companion, and a team of super-friends isn’t just another genre origin story. While it nails that aspect, the movie deals with themes much more close to home that I rarely see in a children’s film–grief, and healing.
An old story that feels young
Hamada Hiro is just the right kind of character for a film to develop into a likable person. A young genius squandering his potential on illegal toy-robot battles, “Hiro” (indeed) runs into trouble with the law and with his family. His and older brother Tadashi’s parents are deceased, so the two live with Cass, their aunt. Cass is a loving ‘mother,’ emotionally yet reasonably concerned for her nephew’s well-being, and she and Tadashi never come across as overbearing.
That being stated, the robot fight that begins the film is exciting and compelling, and it sets the stage for the movie’s PG-appropriate yet totally engrossing brand of action. If you watched the old BattleBots show, this will look very familiar.
After exposing his latent robot-commanding abilities and humiliating his large and imposing opponent, Hiro is rescued from danger by his big brother and is given something new to strive for. Tadashi’s university has a robotics program and laboratory, and it is an absolute delight to witness. Tons of amazing concepts and designs are everywhere, and I can definitely see lots of young boys and girls wanting to go into engineering after viewing this.
Tadashi introduces Hiro to several other individuals whose fun and diverse personalities–and silly yet logical nicknames– will later make them valuable friends. They don’t receive a huge amount of character development, but they’re always a joy to watch. (None of them are annoying, and they usually have multiple aspects to their character that aren’t readily apparent. One big guy’s rather a softie. The tough girl has a caring side, and so on.) Perhaps most importantly, Hiro gets to meet one of Tadashi’s greatest creations: Baymax, an adorable, inflatable, robotic … nurse. Hiro also becomes interested in attending Tadashi’s school, and an opportunity presents itself if Hiro can claim victory at an annual technology exhibition. There’s just one little problem–he doesn’t really have any ideas!
Our story leader’s momentum abruptly comes to a halt until he’s given a piece of advice that proves handy numerous times throughout the movie: Look at your problems from a new angle. This leads to Hiro’s creation of “microbots,” tiny devices that can be assembled into complex yet sturdy shapes with the use of a neural transmitter. Hence, the wearer can simply and literally think things into existence.
The microbots wow the onlookers, despite Hiro’s introduction getting off to a rough start, and even though a shady individual tries and fails to buy Hiro’s invention, all seems well–until the convention building catches fire. Setting a noble example for his younger brother, Tadashi rushes inside to save another individual.
The building explodes.
A young story that feels wise
At a later point in time, Hiro is shown to be working through his own wounds. By accident, he activates Baymax, whose forever calm and pleasant bedside manner would warm any doctor’s office. The robot gets put to great mood-lightening purpose throughout the movie but is never overused. The most “extreme” of its moments are probably the fart jokes based around the electronics-surrounding materials’ deflation, but even this is at times relevant without feeling forced or improbable. In the bigger picture, the movie never comes across as being too juvenile for adults or too intense or scary for children, even when the issue of the death of a loved one comes up.
This is not just something that appears once to give Hiro a context and then is forgotten about. It defines a large part of the boy’s personality for the rest of the movie, and it affects how he treats others and how they treat him. In my view the movie handles the necessity of proper grief much more thoroughly than did The Book of Life, and that film’s whole story centered on death, at least in theory.
In any case, after Hiro winds up having to chase Baymax down, the twofind themselves inside an abandoned building where a mysterious masked villain attacks them with an army of the boy’s own microbots, presumed lost. The movie really takes off at this point, and several things stick out to me:
1) In some superhero origin stories, I find myself wandering when the main character is actually going to get around to fighting crime and saving the day, because the preceding events aren’t always compelling. Big Hero 6 does not have that problem. It wonderfully employs enough tragedy and comedy to maintain the audience’s attention even given its slow beginning, which also keeps the early narrative structure somewhat unpredictable, as the beginning scenes don’t just feel like a rote “you can’t have fun yet” obligation.
2) The microbots make a really interesting enemy. They’re dangerous, but they lack intelligence of their own and can only obey the orders given to them. The movie doesn’t have throwaway henchmen, so the heroes can be thrown into tense situations often without endangering the lives and health of people who happen to be working for the wrong side.
3) The actual superhero story, up to this point and outside of the Hamadas’ group of friends, has felt like a total cliche–but it would still be worthwhile watching because of the story’s clear amount of passion. Then the movie suddenly decides to give itself a lot more thought.
Hiro has a mission: track down the person who has his microbots. Furthermore, he has a means: give Baymax some battle armor, upload a variety of fighting abilities, and provide suits to the friends Tadashi had introduced him to.
Since the compassionate but feature-simple Baymax has little understanding of hurt beyond the physical, the movie stops to explain emotional injury in simple, child-acceptable terms. Hiro’s new friends are also wonderful people to him in his time of need, and each of them more than proves his or her worth.
A wise story that’s still fun
The movie cannot grieve forever, though, and the various characters have tons of fun trying out their new equipment (each set is tailored to its owner’s respective interests). Once Baymax gets his wings, the requisite flying sequence shows off the gorgeous environment of San Fransokyo, which does look like at least a surface hybrid of American and Japanese cultures, as does the rest of the movie.
The group, layer by layer, eventually discovers more difficult truths behind what’s been happening. Several complex and emotional life-and-death problems present themselves, and the movie progressively becomes more human even as its technology heads farther into the realm of fantasy. Without giving away details, this leads to some very tense disagreements among Hiro and his friends, but they’re the only kind of their sort in the movie, as there are no pointless conflicts among the team members. Unlike Marvel’s own Avengers, Big Hero 6 seems to take the assumption that its main characters generally get along well with one another and, for the most part, to keep their focus on opposing their common enemy.
From there, the movie plays out without trying to redefine its genre but proves a thoroughly enjoyable romp regardless. The movie does make use of a ‘classic’ emotion-evoking maneuver but does an absolutely fantastic job of pulling it off. Pixar’s own The Incredibles* often repeated the message of family, but Big Hero 6 takes this one step further and, without really saying it, tells the viewer to appreciate each moment with a loved one as much as is possible. None of us is guaranteed to see tomorrow, and so each moment is precious and is worth cherishing.
* Not that this is a Pixar work, mind you–I’ve already seen one person get this impression
Even if the movie’s story doesn’t quite succeed in simply as many ways as this year’s How to Train Your Dragon sequel did, it is still a complete delight from start to finish, as it deftly handles surprisingly mature and at times mildly disturbing issues without ever becoming something I’d want to dissuade young or sensitive viewers from seeing.
Conclusion: Better than many big-name superhero films
Big Hero 6 deserves appreciation simply for just how many cliches and needless plot threads it could have embraced but chooses to avoid. As stated, there are no excessive conflicts among the team members: the disagreements make sense, and even when one person in particular begins causing problems, it’s easy to see where he’s coming from even if his ends don’t justify his intended means. The movie’s anti-revenge message makes for some very interesting role reversals at times.
There are no pointless romances, and the girls and the black guy don’t get stuck with embarrassing “I’m just as capable as you are” subplots. The movie accepts their abilities without comment and moves right on. On that note, the girls are very interesting characters with near-completely different personalities and full-coverage combat outfits, and even the incessantly, lovably sweet power-of-heart girl is as capable in a fight as any of her teammates. Hiro’s teammates feel almost like one “super-character” instead of heavily detailed individuals, but their simple characterization helps to keep the film moving forward instead of it having to stop to develop intricate personal relations.
Some of the expected genre staples feel very self-aware. Trying to stuff Baymax’s air-filled body into rigid armor is a hilarious and nearly futile act, and during a silly car chase, his calm reminder for Hiro to wear a safety belt is a delight, especially since his driver speeds through train tracks only a few moments later. The police and medical crew are not useless, and there’s a fairly plausible reason given for why they’re not more heavily involved. Even each of the action scenes feels important to the plot in the long term–there are no random hostages, thefts, or the like.
The movie is a tremendous success, even for viewers who aren’t familiar with the characters or aren’t fans of other superhero lines. It’s a gorgeous film that I wish I’d seen in 3D, which is something I rarely say since so many films I’ve watched make mediocre use of the technology or simply don’t look great enough to need it. Big Hero 6 is gorgeous, and its environmental art style at times looks detailed enough to almost look realistic. The film never takes itself too seriously, and yet it’s never abrasively silly. It doesn’t take long for Hiro to prove himself likable and to live up to his name, and his friends are as kindhearted as one could ask for, which even those of us who aren’t superheroes can appreciate and may well need. The movie also does a better job of giving viewers a reason to empathize with and even come to love a robot than most any movie or game I can think of. Thank you, Disney.
Stay through the credits.
Oh, and the short film preceding the movie was adorable.
Image credits (property of Walt Disney Pictures and Animation Studios)
– Movie poster – source
– San Fransokyo city concept art — source
– City ground-level picture — source
– The cuddly robot, Baymax — source
– Masked villain — source
– Hiro and armored Baymax bowing — source
– Baymax hug! — source