When The Walt Disney Company acquired Marvel Entertainment in 2009, fans on all sides wondered what sort of corporate synergy we’d see between the two in future projects. For the most part the companies have kept their logos in separate spaces, but Big Hero 6 represents the first truly co-op experience: a Disney animated film based on a Marvel property, albeit very loosely (whose creators, Steven T. Seagle and Duncan Rouleau, later became part of the think tank responsible for Ben 10). Sharing between Disney and Marvel came easily to them this time, most likely because the characters had become instantly obscure and tossed in the back of the Marvel IP closet, upsetting maybe five or ten fans at most. If a reboot went wrong, they had nothing to lose.
Someone somewhere spotted them on a list, figured they were practically a blank slate, dusted them off, shined them up, upgraded them for a younger audience, deleted all the X-Men connections that got them published in the first place, and now here we are with the next Walt Disney Animated Classic — the all-new, all-different Big Hero 6.
Short version for the unfamiliar: In a future where cities merge like corporations for no practical reasons that I can fathom, the amalgamated San Fransokyo has glossy Blade Runner streets, Lady and the Tramp back alleys, a Golden Gate Bridge laced with pagoda trimmings, and one heck of a supernormal engineering school where all the best and brightest science whizzes study, invent, experiment, and make STEM careers look snazzy and inviting. Hotheaded teen prodigy Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter from Supah Ninjas) has been encouraged to enroll by his older inventor brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney, a.k.a. Agent Zero from X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and Tadashi’s mentor, Professor Callaghan (James Cromwell). Hiro aces the audition with an improbable innovation that could change the world. Alas, tragedy strikes and Hiro’s world and heart are left broken.
When Hiro realizes evil is afoot and someone’s responsible, he unwittingly becomes the core of a new team that uses the twin powers of knowledge and science to invent new identities and save the day. The geniuses-turned-adventurers with whimsical nicknames include Gogo (Jamie Chung, Once Upon a Time‘s Mulan), who power-skates and has Tron-esque power-throwing rings; Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), who carries a power-purse that power-3D-prints an assortment of super-throwing globs; Wasabi (New Girl‘s Damon Wayans Jr.), who has ’90s laser-hand-swords; stoner-dude Fred (T.J. Miller, in a variation on his How to Train Your Dragon persona), a huge Godzilla fan who gets his wish; and the plastic-bubble robot Baymax (30 Rock‘s Scott Adsit), whose benign primary directive is automated health care like The Doctor from Star Trek: Voyager, but can be reprogrammed for new modes as needed, for better or for worse.
Our six would-be do-gooders have no metahuman powers, no fighting experience, and no badges, only science and friendship on their side. Can they bring a killer to justice and prove that science is cool?
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Also hanging out around the edges are ex-SNLer Maya Rudolph as Hiro’s cheery aunt/ward; E.R. mainstay Abraham Benrubi (an Indiana native!) as a military general with small key role; and, as a greedy billionaire who sure looks guilty of something, Firefly‘s Alan Tudyk, who — after previous turns in Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen — is fast becoming Disney’s answer to Pixar’s ubiquitous John Ratzenberger. I, for one, welcome Tudyk to this upstanding career track.
There’s also a very special, big-name cameo I didn’t see coming. More about that in the spoiler section at the end.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? For the kids at home, the surface morals are short but important: (1) Science is cool. (2) Revenge is not cool. (3) Killing is the extreme opposite of cool. (4) Heroic sacrifice hurts for those left behind, but ’tis a noble thing indeed.
Of all the animated films ever to deal with the loss of loved ones, Big Hero 6 may be the only one to offer explicit practical advice for coping. Baymax’s extensive medical programming prompts him to initiate grief counseling procedures without even being asked, resulting in numerous scenes of him reassuring poor Hiro, hugging him to pieces, encouraging him to connect with others (and vice versa), and going above and beyond to find ways to pursue life after tragedy. If Peter Parker had ever received this sort of clinical help, Spider-Man would’ve turned out a very different kind of wall-crawler.
Big Hero 6’s origin separates them from the super-hero herd in a timely fashion: their powers and abilities are synthesized entirely from scientific advancements and inventions of their own making, thankfully without Tony Stark’s cocky ego. These super-heroes had no freak accidents, no alien gifts, and no genetic mutations. Their greatest collective talents are their education and their imagination. It regrettably takes a death to spur them to their calling, but their hero gadgets and suits are arguably more proactive and immediately beneficial in purpose than lab research done for the sake of grades or grants. (At the same time, though, if the team earns more stories beyond this movie, it might be nice to see them apply their learning to more than just new weaponry and super-suit upgrades.)
Also of special note: the Sixers and several of their lab associates are explicitly portrayed as not all white guys. If you’ve ever stepped foot on the grounds of a prestigious engineering college, this is obvious everyday campus life. If you only know labs from what you see in movies or what you read from sneering bigots online, you may be in for a few volts’ worth of culture shock.
Nitpicking? All that tremendous scientific know-how doesn’t explain how these non-fighter science geeks come out swinging in their first big battle with combat skills somehow already in place. It’s a wonder they aren’t all immediately murdered. One teammate shows moments of quivering fear, but he recovers and falls in line because Disney role models.
I thought it odd that the final boss battle bore striking resemblances to elements from Transformers: Age of Extinction (ditto the dual participation of T.J. Miller), but I was tickled to see Big Hero 6 elevate the shared concept into a different dimension that reminded me of old Fantastic Four comics.
I also made a face at the idea of a super-purse. Not every hero has to be my role model, mind you, but…a super-purse? It was a small relief that Honey showed no signs of a clichéd shopping addiction, at least. Not that there’s anything wrong with shopping, of course.
Least favorite bits: apparently in the distant future the Kids These Days will still be fist-bumping, taking selfies, and stuck on 21st-century retro-lingo such as “sick” and “I KNOW, RIGHT?” Nothing renders a science fiction script more instantly obsolete than a short-sighted need to rely on present-day fads and catchphrases for easy punchlines.
So did I like it or not? The basic framework of Big Hero 6 is a standard super-team origin that sets the stage for sequels or a cost-effective animated series, but that framework carries an array of dazzling ideas and nifty performances. I like the concept of self-made science heroes as super-heroes. Their first nemesis, a Kabuki-masked enigma with a tech-based advantage of his own, provides ostentatious displays of intimidation using powers I can’t recall seeing in film before. And even before they suit up, Our Heroes work well together as an ensemble who know how far they can kid each other, as well as how much they need to support each other.
The humor mostly works (with the exceptions noted above) and the action animation is suitably impressive, particularly in the hectic chases through the arty, hilly streets of multi-culti Sanfransokyo. Anchoring everything as Best in Show is Baymax himself, a ready-made vehicle for fun, silent slapstick that teaches kids the entertainment value of extended awkward pauses. As cheerily voiced by Scott Adsit, Baymax is a pragmatic loyal helper who may not have true emotions embedded in his command codes, but nonetheless inspires an Iron Giant level of applause and affection in friends and viewers alike. This well-meaning, walking bounce-house becomes the heart of Big Hero 6, lifting them above the level of generic super-team and justifying their emergence from the Marvel Universe appendices into a new life with limitless possibilities.
The movie also comes with a lovable new Disney short called “Feast”, about the life and meals of a cute widdle doggie and you guys it’s TOTES ADORBS, though if I spoiled our own dog with as much people-food as this cute widdle doggie is gifted, I’d be in so much trouble. I think it’s also the first time I’ve ever encountered a story in which parsley is an antagonist.
How about those end credits? Yes, there is indeed a scene after the Big Hero 6 end credits. If you haven’t seen the film, a description of the epilogue will read as one-half “LOL awesome” and one-half “Wait, what?” For those who fled the theater prematurely and really want to know without seeing it a second time…
[insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
…after the action is over, Fred returns to his extravagant mansion home and gazes upon the painting of his vacationing parents, which we saw earlier in the film and recognized one famously familiar face. Fred feels around the frame and accidentally triggers a hidden door that opens into a secret laboratory filled with various outlandish gizmos. Hanging on one wall appear to be two Ant-Man suits. As Fred gapes in awe, in walks his dad, voiced by The Stan Lee in yet another Marvel movie cameo.
Father and son hug and bond over their shared disregard for underwear hygiene taboos.
(You had to be there.)