At its best, “Big Hero 6” is like a big, snuggly hug from a loved one. And that’s entirely fitting, since its iconic central figure is designed to deliver reassurance and comfort.
Now in wide release everywhere – unavoidable, really – the latest animated feature from Disney soars in its warmth and humor, historically the trademark specialty of the Mouse House.
The story is based on a relatively minor Marvel Comics series of the same name, created by Chris Claremont and David Nakayama. What the minds at Disney’s animation division have brought to the table is a richly-detailed fleshing out of the plot and characters, adding a generous helping of the studio’s signature humor and endearment.
The story opens by introducing two orphaned Japanese American siblings, Hiro Hamada and his older brother, Tadashi. The pair live above the cafe owned by their aunt Cass, in the hybrid city of San Fransokyo.
The Hamada boys are brilliant engineers, though Hiro has yet to move beyond using his skills to score quick cash in robot battles. With a fair amount of brotherly prodding, Tadashi convinces the lad to try for a spot to join him at the city’s prestigious robotics academy.
Hiro’s design concept of micro robots earns him enrollment, but an unspeakable tragedy derails his life. Crestfallen, Hiro turns to his brother’s quirky and bookish classmates – and his final invention – to find comfort and direction.
Tadashi had worked tirelessly to create a robot defined by its warmth and compassion – a “personal healthcare companion” – called Baymax. He’s sort of the ultimate Obamacare appliance – a cuddly, expressionless inflatable that can scan its patient and instantly analyze mood, health, and any ailments. Its most impressive trait comes later, one that is altogether human: caring.
“Coping with any loss is hard, and Baymax is a reflection if who Hiro has lost,” said Ryan Potter, the teenaged actor who provided the voice of Hiro Hamada. “He is fortunate that he can find characteristics in Baymax that mirror Tadashi.”
“Big Hero 6” shines in areas that have become standards in animation ever since Pixar advanced the medium beyond mere cartoons; not only the technical sophistication of art, but also in how the science is used to convey humor and genuine emotion.
The relationship between the Hamada brothers is one of a shared need of survival, and though they are under the guardianship of their aunt (Maya Rudolph), it’s clear they feel it’s the two of them against the world. When Tadashi is lost, Baymax (Scott Adsit) has the tools to help make Hiro – and the rest of us – feel better, to believe that we’re going to be okay, in spite of it all.
The movie is also a masterpiece of set design. San Fransokyo – the mash-up of the Bay Area and Tokyo – is magnificently detailed, with cherry blossom-lined streets, Japanese billboards and familiar San Francisco landmarks given a few Far East tweaks. Victorian apartment houses are bathed in rich color, torii gates accent the bustling streets and Japanese and English advertisements adorn cable cars. Honestly, I could have sat through a film based solely on the surrounding environments.
The film is rich in its visual tributes to anime and classic Japanese shows like “Giant Robo.” There is a wonderful harkening of the sense and style of the superb 1999 animated feature “The Iron Giant.”
Humor is another of the assets possessed by “Big Hero 6.” One sequence in particular has Baymax attempting to mend a few leaks in his inflatable skin with a roll of scotch tape, while Hiro is doing his level best to explain his personal crisis to a skeptical policeman. A harrowing chase sequence also had kids and adults alike howling with laughter at the press screening.
The film’s most satisfying underlying quality is one that is never even addressed. This is a big-budget Hollywood feature in which the main characters are Asian American, in a city that is defined by Asian heritage … and those facts have little to do with the plot.
“There was never anything specific to being Japanese or Asian. More important than focusing on ethnicity was the focus on the relationship of the brothers,” explained Daniel Henney, who plays Tadashi.
“It’s tough at times for actors or writers. The idea of the Asian male has been de-sexualized in film and TV, and so it’s very refreshing not to have to subscribe to those kinds of ideas of the world,” Henney added.
Potter, who spent his early childhood in Tokyo and spoke Japanese as his first language, said “Big Hero 6” is a giant step toward constructive representation in Hollywood.
“If you’re going to call the U.S. a melting pot, movies and TV need to reflect that,” he said. “I think that’s what’s really cool in this film – my character is Asian American, but I don’t need to play to that.”
Potter, 19, said he completely relates to the fanboy lifestyle, and voicing Hiro involved a fair amount of expressing his own life.
“I’m very fortunate, because I was able to basically use my own voice, and not have to do a character,” he said. “The recording took more than a year, and my voice was changing, so it was great that I only had to play myself. The creators of the film created a very comfortable environment for me, so I didn’t really have to act.”
The motley and colorful entourage of engineering friends-turned-superheroes includes hard-shelled Gogo Tomago (Jamie Chung), gentle giant Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), bubbly Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) and rad dude Fred (T.J. Miller).
“This is a multicultural group, just like the city they represent,” said Chung. “It’s not a matter of race here, they are brought together by their love of science and inventing.”
Where “Big Hero 6” disappoints is the point at which the story line forces it to devolve into a fairly standard superhero film. Hiro and his friends – who up to that point had been fun, original characters – are suddenly transformed into the formula of nerds-turned-heroes, and the results are something we’ve seen in several other films before.
For the youngest viewers, “Big Hero 6” might well be a softer alternative to the bombastic superhero fare of the past several years, much of which has been coming from (Disney-owned) Marvel –films such as the Captain American and Avengers blockbusters. The heart and soul of this movie, however, has little to do with action and plenty to do with heart.