Big Hero 6 has a lot riding on its shoulders, being the first Disney animated film to feature Marvel characters since Disney’s 2009 acquisition of the comic book behemoth, not to mention having the unenviable task of following up Frozen—What’s that you say, Kanye? The top-grossing animation film of all time? Thankfully, it mostly delivers. Audiences are likely to be won over by the (very merchandisable) inflatable robot Baymax and the mind-bogglingly detailed creation of utopian hybrid metropolis San Fransokyo, although the high is somewhat deflated by an overly formulaic second half.
Lovable dope Baymax is the clear star of the show. Like a softer, more streamlined Michelin Man if he were roboticised and programmed with the Hippocratic Oath, complete with the guileless, earnest personality of C-3PO, he seems like an unthreatening vision of the future grounded firmly in the familiar. Much of the film’s humour derives from his often fraught negotiations with the world around him: the swooshing sounds of his vinyl thighs rubbing together as he walks like George Costanza in his new suit, or his descent into a stumbling, slurring drunken daze when approaching low battery. His form was inspired by a research trip to the Soft Machines Lab (SML) at Carnegie Mellon University back in 2011, where similar soft, inflatable robots are being developed for use in healthcare. This grounding in real-life technology and innovation informs much of Big Hero 6 and its vision of the future, valuing science and technology over the usual fanciful magic of most other superhero films.
The message of Big Hero 6 seems to be that not just with great power, but with great technology comes great responsibility, expanding on the famous mantra of its arachnid Marvel cousin, Spider-Man. Our hero is precocious orphan Hiro Hamada, who finished high school at 13 and now channels his genius into winning “bot fights” with his easily-superior robotic inventions in seedy back-alley gambling dens, much to the disappointment of his older brother and Baymax inventor, Tadashi, who feels Hiro’s talents could be better applied. Such is it that Tadashi introduces Hiro to his inner sanctum, the Robotics Lab at the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology – otherwise known as the “nerd lab”, where the prodigal students are more likely to be found messing around with a 3D printer than a beer keg. Complications arise when Hiro’s invention of neurotransmitter-controlled “microbots” gets in the wrong hands, where they are used by a kabuki-masked villain for evil rather than good.
With the introduction of the villain comes the roll-out of familiar superhero team formula recognisable from countless other Marvel productions. (Although it does feature a welcome discouragement of senseless violence and some strong, if slightly token, quota-filling female characters) With this, the unique charm of the sequences introducing Baymax and the rich world of San Fransokyo which made the first half so promising becomes sidelined in favour of showpiece fighting sequences, which feel at odds with the rest of the film. In between do peek through some tender moments between Hiro and Baymax, their relationship threading the film with a buddy romance that forms one of the film’s strongest elements.
The visuals are uniformly robust, aided by Disney’s new rendering tool Hyperion, created for Big Hero 6, which, to oversimplify some extremely complicated software, allows a more realistic simulation of light than previously possible. The virtual cinematography is as slick as you’d expect, with sweeping aerial shots of San Fransokyo giving an opportunity to showcase the impressive accuracy and detail with which the topography and architecture of the real San Francisco has been transplanted and adapted into the creation of this fictional world.1 That 750,000 characters, 260,000 trees and 83,000 buildings uniquely designed to populate San Fransokyo give an indication of the enormous scale of this production.
A slight disappointment was the mostly superficial Japanese-American cultural mesh, weaved into token architectural details, in Hiro and Tadashi’s Japanese heritage or in the film’s devotion to all things high-tech, without being explored in much depth. It could be seen as a prognosis of an increased East Asian influence in US cities of the near future, such as the Shanghai-spliced Los Angeles of the “slight future” in Spike Jonze’s Her.2
All things considered, Big Hero 6 is a mostly charming venture that, like a good robot, performs as you would expect. With the help of Baymax, will be sure to take pride of place among Disney’s billion-dollar display cabinet.
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