'Big Hero 6' review: a puffy, lovable robot to the rescue

Disney digs into Marvel's vault to bring us a family-friendly superhero film

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Iron Man is not in this movie. We should get that out of the way right up front. But if you liked Iron Man, and the idea that someone can create wondrous and deadly things with technology appeals to you, then you might like Big Hero 6. This is a story about robots big and small, but it’s also one about friendship, loss, and trying to fix things that cannot always be mended. It manages to deliver in most of those areas with humor and without being preachy. And yes, there’s a big, rubbery robot that can fly.

This is the first Disney Animation Studios film to make use of the Marvel universe since Disney snapped it up for $4 billion five years ago, but it exists in a strange realm that has nothing else to do with other Marvel worlds or characters (like Tony Stark). Instead, we have San Fransokyo, a vibrant amalgam of San Francisco and Tokyo. The iconic Golden Gate Bridge, for instance, has been mixed up to look like it’s part pagoda. Disney has been equally creative with its source material. Big Hero 6 is the namesake of an obscure Marvel comic book series, though the film, which is directed by Don Hall (director of 2011's Winnie the Pooh) and Chris Williams (who directed 2008's Bolt), diverges from that mythology. Some of the characters are the same, but have different abilities and backstories, making this film original in its own right. That’s not to say it doesn't follow many of the same superhero movie tropes, which makes it a good primer for filmgoers who may be too young to see something like The Avengers. And to be perfectly clear, this film is largely aimed at kids, though like many other Disney films it’s something adults will enjoy.

People in San Fransokyo fight robots for money, and the main character, Hiro Hamada, has built one so good it makes short work of its opponents, ripping them limb from limb. But his older brother Tadashi wants Hiro to leave behind the seedy alleys of the city to come join him at the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology. Part of his pitch involves showing him Baymax, a large, white inflatable robot that Tadashi invented to serve as a portable doctor. Realizing he could be building similar projects, Hiro decides he wants in.

But for Hiro, it’s not as simple as writing an essay about his summer vacation to get into this college. The university requires him to come up with something to wow the program’s professor. Hiro’s answer are tiny robots that can be controlled by thought. Hiro believes that the microbots could be useful for things like transportation and construction, and his demonstration of those possibilities is one of the film’s most memorable scenes. That demo sets off a bidding war between people who want to develop the technology commercially, and those who want it for science.

Yokai

The movie escalates from there, introducing a masked man named Yokai, our antagonist and genuinely one of the scariest villains to grace a Disney film in years. Donned in black and wearing a white kabuki mask, Yokai's stolen Hiro's microbots, and produces a seemingly never-ending sea of them that he wields (often poorly) as weapons. With the help of Baymax, and several students, Hiro forms a rag-tag group to face Yokai, each of them using technology they’ve cooked up in the university’s labs to give themselves unique powers.

There are easy comparisons here with The Avengers, though the other group members are mostly forgettable, with the exception of Fred (voiced by Silicon Valley’s T.J. Miller), a slacker whose super suit is a large green monster. Baymax (voiced by 30 Rock’s Scott Adsit), on the other hand, steals the movie. Tadashi programmed him to be a caregiver that won’t stop until his patient is satisfied, an attribute that crops up in the worst situations. Baymax’s transformation from the seemingly drunken balloon who has trouble climbing a set of stairs to a nearly indestructible flying machine is also great fun to watch. As is the burgeoning friendship between Baymax and Hiro, which succeeds in exploring the odd camaraderie that could exist between a human and a robot. It harkens back to 1996’s The Iron Giant, though San Fransokyo residents are seemingly unfazed about seeing Baymax walk around their streets, unlike the people in that film.

On that note, Disney has made much ado about its efforts to make San Fransokyo a living, breathing city, though it never fully comes alive. While the two cities have been mashed up architecturally, there is a still a homogenized feeling about its residents, who take turns bustling through crowded sidewalks and disappearing completely when scenes might work better without them. That’s fine, but it feels like a missed opportunity. Disney should be applauded for the look though, which is a gorgeous world filled with rolling hills, gleaming skyscrapers, and a glow of neon that seeps through the fog.

The film introduces a number of ideas that don't necessarily move the superhero movie genre forward, but do convey some genuinely good ideas about technology, morality, and ambition. In this vision of the near future, you can build things like microbots in your garage, which really doesn't seem that far off anymore. There may not be deep questions about whether self-aware robots should be treated like people, but there are questions about what they should be used for. And we instantly know why someone would aspire to create an adorable healing robot.

Big Hero 6 is ultimately enjoyable but it can be frustrating. If you’re expecting city-destroying robot fights the likes of Transformers, you won’t find them here. And likewise if you’re looking for some real chemistry and believable friendships between a group of unlikely heroes, that’s not quite here either. Where Big Hero 6 succeeds, and succeeds big, is in the friendship between Hiro and Baymax. They’re an odd couple and their relationship explores the need for companionship. That Disney manages to pull that off with an inflatable talking robot is better than any special effects you’ll see on screen.

Big Hero 6 opens up in theaters Friday, November 7th.

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