Fun, funny, and quietly heartbreaking, Big Hero 6 overcomes what minor flaws it has through some of the strongest character work I have seen in an animated movie in years.
As a kid who grew up during the Disney Renaissance, was too young to understand the significance of it, but was plied with their Golden Age output on various VHS tapes, few things make me happier than seeing Walt Disney Animation Studios once again return to a position where everything they put out is Must-See-Viewing. What groundwork Bolt managed to lay has proved more than stable as the studio have just been knocking it out of the park consistently for the last five films – The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Winnie The Pooh, Wreck-It Ralph, and Frozen – with commercial success following them (almost) every step of the way.
Big Hero 6 continues that trend, completely cementing for those that don’t already know that Disney is very much back, which I imagine comes as a surprise for many people. After all, it appears to be a superhero film – many snobbier members of the critical spectrum being sick to death of them, by this point – based on a Marvel Comics series – themselves at risk of oversaturation due to that aforementioned comics boom. Expecting something transcendental from a superhero film, and especially what appears to be a B-grade Disney film, plays like wishful thinking at this point – I enjoy the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I’m not going to kid myself into believing that they’re not formula-driven popcorn flicks.
The real masterstroke of Big Hero 6, though, is that the superhero stuff actually makes up comparatively little of the film yet is still a vital part of it. See, the film follows Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), a brilliant but directionless 14 year-old who finally seems to have found a purpose in his life – joining his similarly brilliant older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) at San Fransokyo’s finest robotics university – when tragedy strikes and Hiro once again has to deal with loss. Wallowing in his depression, Hiro accidentally activates Tadashi’s latest invention, Baymax (Scott Adsit), a soft, gentle “personal health care companion” who takes it upon itself to help Hiro deal with his depression – in this case throwing themselves into solving the mystery of the tragedy in question, which may not have been as random as it first seemed.
Therefore, the core of Big Hero 6 is not whizz bang superheroics. It is instead this central relationship between Hiro and Baymax as the latter tries to help the former overcome depression and grief without ever completely understanding the concepts it’s having to grapple with. That manifests itself via superheroics, but the film makes it clear that this is Hiro’s way of dealing with that loss, choosing to fixate on something to get his mind off the giant hole that has appeared in his life. Crucially, this is not the solution to his problems, it’s just the method, and the film never purports to claim that Hiro has or ever truly will overcome that loss. It offers no concrete answers, although Hiro does end the film happily, and its refusal to do so is what makes that thematic centre work – there’s a level of trusting maturity there that more animated films should have.
Helping that thematic centre is the fact that Hiro and Baymax are wonderful, incredibly lovable characters. Baymax, obviously, is the standout of the whole film, an absolutely adorable AI whose pacifist and childlike nature resonated totally with me. It is a creation of pure kind-hearted good and its little pre-programmed procedures and affectations manage to bring it close enough to humanity to make its more robotic moments that much more surprising and, occasionally, heartbreaking. Hiro is also likeable from the word “go”, his archetype forming the base of his character but not forming his entire character which enables him to feel unique and three-dimensional even from the opening few minutes.
Those qualities are enhanced too by their respective voice actors. Ryan Potter, previous of live-action Nickelodeon series Supah Ninjas, proves himself surprisingly adept at voice acting. A lot of the film is carried on Hiro’s shoulders, as well as that aforementioned weighty central theme, but he is more than up to the task, never over or under-playing any of his lines and excellently communicating the heartbreak, occasional anger and eventual somewhat recovery in a natural and convincing way. As for Scott Adsit… I really don’t know what to say, he is Baymax. From the second that Baymax communicates, Scott Adsit is it. His voice is that kind of genius immediate “no, this is perfect” casting that Disney have just been on a roll with recently – John C. Reilly as Ralph, Kristen Bell as Anna, Kristen Schaal as Mabel – and it fits Baymax so perfectly that he makes anything the character says a million times better than it already sounded on paper.
You may have noticed that I have yet to talk about the rest of the members of the Big Hero 6. Well, there’s a reason for that. See, this is Hiro’s movie. It’s about his grief and his fight with depression. Opening up to his friends – who for the record are GoGo Tamada (Jamie Chung), Honey Lemon (Génesis Rodríguez), Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.), and Freddie (T. J. Miller) – at all, let alone asking them for help, is a major step for him and so, naturally, it takes about an hour for that to happen. As such, these guys and gals don’t get much of a focus in this movie and end up, like most of the superhero stuff which is the way that Hiro seeks closure in an attempt to move on, only coming into play in the final 40 minutes.
Not that this is a problem, mind you, as they all, even with their limited screen time – and the relegation of their backstories to promotional material, again not a problem – feel… well, real. They really do. Even with a comparatively tiny glimpse into their lives and personalities, they already feel like fully-formed, fully-defined, characters who exist and I can see existing outside of the confines of this film. GoGo, in particular, is given little material in this film yet I already adore her, thanks to what little we do find out – “Woman up!” is a phrase that fills me with indescribable joy, you have no idea – her character animations, and her voice actresses’ performance.
I get the impression that Disney wants this to be the start of some new franchise and that this will be something addressed in future media, but I don’t want a franchise in the traditional sense. I don’t want the big budget action-packed sequel, I don’t want a traditional television series, and I don’t want any of the superhero stuff. I just want more of Hiro, GoGo, Honey Lemon, Wasabi, and Freddie – with the occasional intrusion by Hiro’s wonderful Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph, having a ball) – hanging out together being them. The downtime, the non-action, non-dramatic stuff that conventional wisdom says is too boring to depict – with conflict and drama being the essence of narrative – because the little glimpses I got were so wonderful and tantalising that I just want more of that. I want more time with these characters…
…and also San Fransokyo. Seriously, the city of San Fransokyo is absolutely beautiful, a bustling metropolis with little details in architecture, signage, transport and just general design to make it feel like a genuine place that I would like to move to immediately. The camerawork also helps by borrowing that How To Train Your Dragon technique of bobbing, weaving and zooming like a live-action camera, adding a heft and dynamism to proceedings. Ditto the character animations which, whilst the designs are very much that Tangled-style of 3D Disney, are smoother and weightier than those in Frozen. In fact, that’s a perfect comparison: if the world of Frozen feels very much like a constructed movie set, with an artificial and loosely connected world and doll-like character designs and animations, then the world of Big Hero 6 feels like a real world that I can go to and live in.
There are flaws with Big Hero 6 – I wish that they didn’t play the Fall Out Boy song during the Montage montage, I wish the film had enough faith in its loss theme to not reverse the traditional Disney Death near the ending, that very last (non-post-credits) scene does not need to be there at all, and it telegraphs said tragedy way too obviously – but they really are just minor nitpicks for me. Big Hero 6 gets its core, both thematically and emotionally, spot-on, crafts a group of outstanding characters I just want to spend more time with, and a world I am genuinely sad about not really existing. From there, everything else slides into place – the humour, the fun, the excitement, what few action sequences there actually are – and what little it does wrong is rendered inconsequential in my mind.
As soon as I left the screen for Big Hero 6, I was left with two burning desires: to see it again, and to get down on my knees to Walt Disney Animation Studios and beg for them to make more shorts of just the core group of friends hanging out together. I adored it. Do not miss this one.
Big Hero 6 is due out in UK cinemas on January 30th.