Compared to where things stood even just 10 years ago, the worlds of both comic book movies and animated features have changed drastically. The rise of Marvel Studios, the reinvention of the X-Men franchise, and the nascent DC Cinematic Universe have audiences both accepting and embracing more complex and character-driven superhero stories. And Walt Disney Animation alone has spent the last few years producing beautiful films with powerful, surprising, challenging messages about things like self-acceptance and individuality. Movies of this genre and/or medium have grown in such a way that they no longer need to play the baseline game, and have a tremendous opportunity to present something bold and fresh with each new outing. So the fact that Big Hero 6 doesn’t is an unfortunate mixture of both confusion and disappointment.
Adapted from the Marvel comics of the same name and made by the minds at Walt Disney Animation -- the story follows a teenage robotics genius named Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter), who finds himself coping with the loss of his older brother, Tadashi (voiced by Daniel Henney), by teaming up with an inflatable nurse robot named Baymax (voiced by Scott Adsit). They are joined by Tadashi’s college friends (voiced by T.J. Miller, Jamie Chung, Genesis Rodriguez and Damon Wayans Jr.) on a mission to find the person responsible for stealing Hiro’s newest invention.
To the film’s credit, Big Hero 6 is a colorful, bright adventure set against the beautiful, fictional hybrid city of San Fransokyo, and clear with its intentions and message. But it’s also missing its own individual creative spark, with the plot never deviating from the most simplistic version of the story and a supporting cast more filled with caricatures than characters.
The easiest defense for a film like this is that it’s “made for children,” but isn’t that kind of an archaic, limiting idea at this point? Not only have filmmakers proven time and time again that they can make movies that are just as enjoyable to adults as they are to children, but it’s also somewhat unfair to underestimate the young audience’s plot comprehension. Even if we’re just limiting ourselves to discussing animated superhero features, it wasn’t long ago that Pixar introduced us to The Incredibles -- a film that actually borrowed a good number of plot elements from Alan Moore’s Watchmen, one of the densest comic book stories ever written. Big Hero 6 does work with some important messages about loss and mourning, but those complex themes are undercut by a far-too-simple narrative.
Though it does ultimately come up short of satisfaction, the film does still offer plenty to appreciate. Beyond the aforementioned aesthetic beauty of the animation and the setting, there is some terrific character design at play, most notably when our protagonists get into full superhero mode. But while the supporting characters are largely one-note otherwise, the truly great constant in Big Hero 6 is Baymax and his relationship with Hiro. Sweet, cuddly, and adorably innocent (and all fueled by a wonderful voice performance from Scott Adsit), the inflatable nurse robot is funny, well-animated, and he plays a crucial and positive part in the film’s biggest emotional arc. He is clearly meant to be the character that every child-aged member of the audience falls head-over-heels in love with, and it will be impossible to blame them.
I certainly wasn’t miserable during my experience watching Big Hero 6 - as I laughed a good number of times at the antics and fully acknowledge and understand why every child in the world is going to want a Baymax of their own. But it’s also a surprising step down from the filmmakers who brought us the magic of recent titles like Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen. These kinds of movies are built up and deconstructed so much during the production process – with writers and animators constantly forced to present their work and then have it torn down and retooled by higher-ups – that it’s actually surprising something this simple would be the end result.