I feel a strong sense of guilt saying Big Hero 6 disappoints. After a strong marketing campaign that sold the humor and the visuals without spoiling the story, I walked into my screening with moderate to high expectations (whether or not it’s fair to let the marketing manipulate my expectations, like expecting X when the film is Y, is a discussion for another time). Trailers are a sort of promise, a winking hint at what’s under the preverbal wrapping paper come Christmas morning. With that good string of trailers that frequently provoked audience-wide laughter, buzz was high. But Big Hero 6 is the equivalent of a well-intentioned gift from an out-of-touch aunt, something that’s far from being coal but isn’t close to the top-of-the-list present you had hoped to unwrap. You smile, you say thank you, and you wish you weren’t let down- but you were.
Big Hero 6 feels like a labor of love, and you can sense the fun directors Don Hall and Chris Williams clearly had making their film. The trouble is it’s a feeling not often imparted on the audience- I actively wanted to enjoy the film, in just the same way I would actively want to enjoy a misjudged gift from an earnest relative. But there’s a fundamental difference between opening a gift and watching a movie- on Christmas, it’s mostly the thought that counts. With a movie, nothing matters but the film itself, and Big Hero Six
Despite previews to the contrary, Big Hero 6 isn’t merely about a marshmallow-esque robot that acts drunk when it has a low battery. It, like Iron Man, Batman Begins, Thor, Captain America, and Spiderman, is a superhero origin story. In fact, it’s not just the genesis of one superhero, but six (thus the title). I, like many audience members I’m sure, was caught off guard. Sure, we see a couple shots of the “six” in gear; they’re in a couple seconds of the entirety of the entire marketing campaign. Instead of being pleasantly surprised at a story taking an unexpected direction, Big Hero 6 is both worse off and less interesting than the movie promised in the trailers. As I’m about to go on to explain, we’ve seen variations of Big Hero 6 more times than one (robotic) hand has fingers. It’s an unwanted bias, but one that was necessarily created by Walt Disney Studios, not me. To add insult to injury, if you’ve seen both U.S. trailers, you’ve already seen many of the funniest and most memorable moments. Big Hero 6 is a powerful example on the virtue of skipping the marketing.
We follow Hiro Hamada, a 14-year-old boy genius who spends his days hustling back alley robot fights. His battle bot, clearly less armed and formidable than those of his competition, wins via its creativity and cleverness. Hiro is a boy of unique potential, and when his watchful older brother, Tadashi, convinces him to join a top shelf university by inventing something wow worthy, he creates something that can change the world. His brother has invented a healthcare robot called Baymax, and he’s to Big Hero 6 what the Joker was to The Dark Knight. As the first act takes shape, including meeting a quirky cast of science nerds, we go through every trope of the superhero genre. There’s little in the way of narrative propulsion. A central mystery linked to the villain is stale and vague and isn’t investigated with an ounce of danger. It’s a formula nastily reminiscent of Divergent, which tries to plug into every story archetype for the sake of maximizing appeal. It’s uninspired, but at least Big Hero 6 tries to be a 21 Jump Street meta-fest for kids, only without being as smart, perceptive, or fun.
Surprises are rare. Think Avengers for young people, only assuming kids haven’t read a comic, seen a superhero movie, or have any exposure to popular culture whatsoever. Yes, there are the “self aware” in-jokes for parents, like referencing his theory on the villain’s motivation through various comic books. But Big Hero 6 is a pre-adolescent doppelganger for the rest of the genre, freely copying scenes straight out of Iron Man. Maybe this is the point- to give kids a taste of what they’re missing. It’s a noble goal, but a tiresome result. Stick to Pixar’s The Incredibles, a vibrant version of a superhero story for kids without sacrificing a thing. The villain, which I’m deliberately avoiding discussing with any detail, is annoyingly reminiscent of the villain from season one of Avatar: The Legend of Korra. Big Hero 6 is so derivative it even borrows the antagonist’s appearance from something else.
Baymax is the heart, soul, brain, and fuel for a film desperately in need of all of the above. San Fransokyo, a charming cultural combination of San Francisco and Tokyo, is another saving grace. The international crossover potential for the setting is vast and Big Hero 6’s only sense of discovery comes as we learn more about its peculiar but amazing city.
The biggest insult to an action adventure is to call it passive but no word better describes Big Hero 6. It’s a film that walks but never runs, and even the most visually amazing action sequences — and the animation is wondrously detailed and vividly brought to life — don’t break a preverbal sweat. Action is reasonably varied, but even a high-speed pursuit through the neon-lit streets of San Fransokyo, where a car veers inches away from cars and corners, lacks a believable sense of danger. There’s two ways for a kid’s film to create stakes. One is to create goals necessary for the protagonist to be happy, and the other is to create a believable threat. The screenplay, written by Robert L. Baird, Dan Gerson, and Jordan Roberts, tries combining both but fails.
This sounds like a brutal critique, and I feel guilty demonizing a film so eager to entertain. The good news is that while Big Hero 6 is a disappointment, it’s far from a disaster. There are laughs, the action is enjoyable if (more than) a little inert, and the animation soars. The voice cast, featuring Scott Adsit, Ryan Potter, and Daniel Henney, are convincing. I wasn’t ever bored, and I was often pleased if never enthralled. Kids are bound to love it, which might be what matters most.