In 2004 Pixar took comic book superheroes and blended it with their trademark animation to make The Incredibles, which lived up to its name. The Brad Bird directed feature had plenty of thrills as well as the cockeyed humor the Pixar does so well. Now Walt Disney Animation, which has made a strong comeback with movies like Tangled, Wreck-it Ralph, and last year’s mega-hit Frozen, has taken a step into the Marvel Universe with Big Hero 6. This time, they blend the story with the emotional resonance of Bambi and Beauty and the Beast.
Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter) and his brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) live in the alternate universe city of San Fransokyo with their aunt Cass (Maya Rudoph). Yes, they’re orphans; this is a Disney flick. You could do a sub-classification for Disney Animation movies on whether the main character has lost one parent or two and almost all their movies would be listed on one side or the other. Hiro is a 14-year-old genius but is only interested in hustling at robot fights. Cass feels completely out of her depth with Hiro, so it’s up to Tadashi to play the parent. He takes Hiro to the university laboratory where he’s studying and introduces him to his lab mates: Fred (TJ Miller), Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) and Go Go (Jamie Chung). Hiro’s fascinated with their work, and is in awe of their professor, Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell), who created much of the technology Hiro uses in his robot. Tadashi also shows Hiro his creation, an inflatable medical robot called Baymax (Scott Adsit).
The visit fires Hiro’s drive, and he creates an incredible technology for a science competition where the prize is entrance into Callaghan’s class. The creation captures the attention of Alistar Krei (Alan Tudyk), the billionaire head of Krei Industries, who makes Hiro an offer on the spot. Callaghan denounces Krei as an opportunist who cuts corners to make money, and Hiro decides to reject the offer and take his place in the laboratory. But on the night of his triumph, a fire breaks out in the display hall and Tadashi is killed trying to save Callaghan.
Hiro retreats to his room, but he discovers that Tadashi has stored Baymax there. Hiro thinks his work for the science competition was destroyed in the fire, but then he and Baymax follow a lead and discover a kabuki-masked villain duplicating Hiro’s work. They try to report their encounter to the police, but the desk sergeant is less than impressed. Hiro realizes the masked man likely caused the fire that killed Tadashi, and decides that he must capture him. But to do that, Baymax needs a major upgrade.
As you’d expect with Disney, the animation is astounding, especially the busy street scenes. The characterizations are sharp and fun, in particular the four lab mates who reach out to Hiro after Tadashi’s death and get recruited into his plans, thus providing the 6 in the title. But what sets Big Hero 6 apart from many superhero stories is how it takes on such deep themes as the corrosiveness of revenge, the power of teamwork, and the cost of heroism. The movie uses its super powers to tug at your heart strings.
There are no songs in the film, so for parents who have listened to “Let It Go” a bazillion times, it’s safe to go back into the theater. The script (by Jordan Roberts and Daniel Gerson & Robert L. Baird) was adapted a Marvel comic by Duncan Rouleau and Stephen Seagle, but completely reimagined might be a better way to describe what the writers accomplished. The comic book was more of a straightforward adventure in the X-Men vein, but in the film it’s the labmates’ scientific accomplishments that allow them to craft their superhero characters. The original also objectified women, but that is completely rejected in the film, amen and hallelujah! Baymax was more a normal robot, but the Baymax in the film is an absolutely brilliant creation. Directors Don Hall and Chris Williams have a gift for blending both heavy action and heart-warming humor.
It is fascinating to see the blending of Marvel and Disney, two almost polar opposites in the animation realm, but it works beautifully. There’s even a direct nod at Marvel in the tag at the end of the credits that will warm nerd hearts.