Some superheroes fight evil in the name of justice. Some fight for revenge. Baymax, the incomparably huggy automaton in Disney’s Big Hero 6, fights to help his young ward, teen genius Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), as he mourns a devastating personal tragedy. This makes Baymax an outlier of sorts in today’s crop of big screen good guys, who tend to answer the call to action for the sake of something bigger than themselves; there are no armored space worms with whom he must tangle, no volcanic sleeper agents working for a megalomaniacal terrorist that he must thwart. Instead, there’s just a sad, lonely kid who needs someone to lean on.
Big Hero 6 is the first Disney film to feature characters from the pages of a Marvel comic book, though they’re represented here almost in name only. Much has been changed from the page to the multiplex, so much so that fans of the title might not recognize its particulars at first blush. In the long run, that’s probably irrelevant; movies like this inevitably lose something in translation, but they still end up making piles of money off the backs of aficionados and the uninitiated alike. (Besides, history proves that slavish devotion to source material can lead to messes like Watchmen and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.) Put another way, we should be grateful for the inventions directors Don Hall and Chris Williams have brought to Big Hero 6; they’ve given the comic its own identity for a mainstream audience who’s likely never heard of it.
The film takes place in San Fransokyo, a futuristic metropolis where east and west collide in a loudly colored urban jungle. It’s in the city’s back alleys that we meet the aforementioned Hiro as he hustles his way through an illegal robot-fighting ring; he’s a smart kid, but he lacks ambition, at least until he signs up at San Fransokyo Tech (the movie’s M.I.T. surrogate) at the behest of his older brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney). Fortune favors the clever Hiro, who gets in without breaking a sweat thanks to his last-minute invention, a nanobot legion with endless practical applications. But no sooner is he admitted than a fatal explosion at the school takes Tadashi’s life and sets Hiro on a grief spiral.
Enter Baymax (Scott Adsit, formerly of TV’s 30 Rock, whose voiceover is the film’s secret weapon). Tadashi’s crowning achievement, Baymax is an inflatable “health care companion” designed to dispense medical aid at the mere sound of human distress. Baymax wants Hiro to feel better. Hiro wants to distract himself from his brother’s death by figuring out who stole his nanobots in the wake of the San Fransokyo Tech catastrophe. Thus, the kid whips up a suit of armor and a suite of programming upgrades to turn the big guy into an ass-kicking juggernaut. They’re quite a pair—one not seen in movies since 1999’s The Iron Giant—though Hiro isn’t battling crime as much as he’s simply trying to move on from his brother’s death. It’s the film’s through line, and a big part of what makes Big Hero 6 such a success.
There’s a lot here that feels familiar, particularly the origin story trappings and the assembly of the super team. Comprised of Tadashi’s classmates, including GoGo (Jamie Chung), Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.), Honey Lemon (Génesis Rodríguez) and Fred (T.J. Miller), the crew helps Hiro beat the bad guy—a sinister figure in a black trench coat and kabuki mask who wields the missing nanobots to nefarious ends. But every single step that Big Hero 6 takes is carried on a genuine undercurrent of emotion. The film alternates between profound joy and the deepest heartbreak. Like the Tony Starks and Peter Parkers of the world, Hiro uses his gifts as a means of dealing with his trauma; it’s just another way in which Hall and Williams cut their animated gem from the same cloth as its live action kin.
But few among those films feel quite so refreshingly alive as Big Hero 6. There’s a beat here, a rhythm that the film follows from start to finish as it juggles adult themes through the lens of children’s fare; credit that verve with the fantasy world in which the film takes place, or with Hall and Williams’ obvious enthusiasm for putting their own stamp on the subject matter. This is an immensely entertaining picture—bright, vivid and smartly constructed on tropes that show themselves a bit too much in its peers. In Sony’s The Amazing Spider-Man films, the confrontation of loss plays like a grinding chore instead of an essential part of the hero’s journey. In Big Hero 6, that component feels organic. It belongs. Thrilling, well-crafted set pieces are only one aspect of what makes blockbusters like this tick. The bond between a boy and his android makes up the rest.
Directors: Don Hall, Chris Williams
Writers: Robert L. Baird, Dan Gerson, Jordan Roberts
Starring: Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans, Jr., Génesis Rodríguez, T.J. Miller, Daniel Henney, Maya Rudolph, James Cromwell, Alan Tudyk
Release Date: Nov. 7, 2014
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has written about film for the web since 2009, and has contributed to Paste since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant and Movie Mezzanine. He collects his work over at his blog. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently, he has given up on shaving.