Big Hero 6 represents Disney’s first animated venture into the Marvel comic-book universe. Through it all, it sticks closely to the superhero-movie formula, with the central robot character – a healthcare system named Baymax – proving to be an extremely lovable and funny presence whose slapstick motions and fish-out-of-water behaviour is nothing but endearing.
The comic-book series that this is based on was set in Japan, but here the action is transported to the city of ‘San Fransokyo’. This backdrop looks marvellous: a bustling metropolis of the hilly terrain and trams associated with San Francisco mixed with the cherry blossoms and architecture of Japan.
We first meet 13-year-old Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) as he hustles an old-timer at what appears to be a more sophisticated version of Robot Wars. Just as he’s caught red-handed, his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney), swoops in to rescue him.
Hiro, having already graduated from high school, is a bright spark with no direction.
Tadashi takes him to the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology and introduces him to his latest invention, Baymax (voiced wonderfully by Scott Adsit) and his colleagues. This motley crew are made up of Fred (TJ Miller), a science fanboy who resembles Shaggy from Scooby-Doo; Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr), a muscly neat freak; the stylish Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) and cyclist GoGo Tamago (Jamie Chung). Hiro finds a new passion and enters a competition to win a scholarship at the college, but after an unexpected tragedy his life takes a different course.
It takes a bit too long to set up the central relationship between Hiro and Baymax, but when it arrives it plays out like the one between Frank Langella and his AI helper in Jake Schreier’s Robot & Frank. Baymax serves only Hiro’s best interests health-wise, though when Hiro reprograms the machine for his own bidding events take a turn for the Short Circuit-esque, which allows for amusing mayhem to ensue. Their developing bond ensures emotional investment, and it’s a very well-observed and touching relationship. The writers also twist the usual revenge narrative and turn it into a positive lesson for kids.
Unfortunately, visually and narratively, there are far too many influences and references crammed in, which results in an odd tone. The supervillain is a manga-inspired Kabuki masked presence who is genuinely scary, which jars with the Pokémon-style energy that is clearly appealing to a younger audience. There are also sprinkles of Studio Ghibli, The Incredibles and The Iron Giant, which renders this effort slightly imitative aside from the imaginative Baymax.
But saying all that, Big Hero 6 does tackle its themes of loss and coming-of-age in an accessible way. At first, Baymax is unaware of the importance of mental health in humans, but the film does a great job of explaining the effects of grief, and even makes suggestions, such as “talking to friends” as a way to recover. In line with Disney’s more progressive approach, none of women are damsels in distress – in fact, GoGo’s catchphrase is “woman up!”
There’s a lot to like in this bright, colourful and very sweet film, full of heart and keen to extol the upsides of technology. It’s at its most poignant and engaging when it comes to family matters, but loses points on the superheroics front.