Big Hero 6
US (2014) Dirs. Don Hall & Chris Williams
Perhaps it is just me but somehow this Disney film seemed to have slipped under my radar, which is unusual considering how much of a mighty publicity machine Uncle Walt’s company is, especially in pushing their animated fare. Still, it means the surprise is all that much sweeter when we find ourselves enjoying something we know little about.
Set in the fictional futuristic world of San Fransokyo, 14 year-old Hiro Hamada is a genius with robotics, making money in illegal Robot Fighting tournaments. To keep Hiro out of trouble, elder brother Tadashi encourages him to enrol in the Institute of Technology’s robotics programme under Tadashi’s mentor Professor Callaghan. At the enrolment science fair Hiro unveils his innovative microbot technology which catches the attention of wealthy industrialist Alistair Krei.
Krei makes Hiro an offer to buy his technology which Hiro turns down but later, a fire breaks out at the venue killing both Tadashi and Callaghan and destroys the microbots. Before he died, Tadashi was working on Baymax, an inflatable health care robot, which Hiro accidentally activates. In trying to fulfil his prime directive, Baymax inadvertently leads Hiro on a mission to capture a mysterious masked man who has mass produced microbots of his own.
I must confess the plot reads like an anime/manga and I did wonder if Disney were trying to be clever and appeal to the Asian market by selling their product back to them, but ahead of writing this review, I learned that in fact Big Hero 6 is a Marvel creation! Not that this film gives any overt indication of this since many changes have been made, the most significant being Baymax is apparently a bodyguard in the comics and not a 6ft balloon like robot.
Whilst there is a heavy Japanese influence on the décor aesthetic and character names, it stops there with only one voice actor (Korean-American Jamie Chung) having Asian connection. This won’t matter to most viewers but it did bug me even though I shouldn’t be the least bit surprised – I am sure the hardcore comic books fans were more perturbed by the drastic changes to the concept.
The comic book superhero aspect at least is given a nod later in the film when Hiro and Baymax find support from Tadashi’s former friends at the Institute to form a costumed team to combat the masked man. Each one has an expertise in technology which Hiro is able to utilise in given them an outlet to put it to use as a superpower, not so subtly tied in with their obvious nicknames.
GoGo is a speed freak developing boomerang wheels, Honey Lemon is the colourful chemical expert, Wasabi is king of lasers and Fred, is the costume-dressing mascot and hardcore nerd. They were all close to Tadashi thus were on hand to offer support to a depressed Hiro, who only had his hard working diner owner aunt to lean on – that is before Baymax was activated.
Acting as the heart of this story is the relationship between Hiro and Baymax, the first steps of which are similar to a young boy getting to grips with an amiable and excitable puppy. Baymax is programmed to provide health care to humans, scanning for injuries and mental or emotional stress, and offering the appropriate remedy or treatment. He may be sentient but doesn’t have his own emotional attachment other than to follow instructions.
It is apparent that Baymax is limited as a robot beyond this, lacking speed, power and any sort of killer instinct, so after a series of amusing misadventures made funnier by Baymax and his perma-deadpan expression, Hiro simply re-programs the robot with kung-fu moves and builds him samurai inspired body armour (this is in a hi-tech future world and all done with computers in case things like cost, time and plausibility cross your mind) to make him, and later the others, more powerful.
Every hero needs a villain and in this case, the opposition for Hiro, Baymax and co. is a slightly different creation which will fool the youngsters watching but I am sure adults will have spotted at least one twist rather early on. It is necessary however that the script follows this route because it wouldn’t be Disney without a conscientious message to impart and this fulfil that remit sufficiently enough.
But it is the ending which is rather brave given the target audience of juniors who may not fully understand the emotional ramifications of it at first, but it is the right one given the context of the preceding narrative. Thankfully the heavy handed Disney schmaltz is eschewed for a more mature sense of bittersweet hope, but the fact we oldies are touched enough to feel it is a testament to power and effectiveness of this measured approach.
There is little point praising the visuals because it is a Disney CGI animation and we all know the high standard of the presentation is a given, and being a major selling point of the film, not to mention beholden to the concept itself, it ought to be stupendous. One has to imagine animating the microbots and their shape-shifting skill was an arduous task even using computers but the results speak for themselves.
Physical character movements are continually improving in CGI while facial expressions and definition remain a problem, and, as it seems, making people with Japanese names LOOK Japanese (I guess if they don’t sound like the either…). Elsewhere vehicles still insist on defying gravity when moving at speed but this is more a comedy trait than an animation fault.
Knowing nothing about Big Hero 6 before finding it on my TV screen earlier this evening makes for a nice change coming into a film fresh, with no preconceptions against it other than the Disney name. A fun, energetic and creative film with a big heart and understated emotional foundation, I am surprised this isn’t better known. Or perhaps it is just me…