Prepare yourselves for a merchandising storm like none you’ve ever seen. There will be plush dolls. There will be action figures. There will be T-Shirts. Why? Because Disney has unleashed upon the world a character so sickeningly cute and so incredibly lovable that nobody will be safe from his charm. That character is Baymax, he’s a big white inflatable robot, and he’s going to rake in the cash.
Of course Disney is flexing its marketing muscle with yet another adorable face that can attach itself to any knick-knack that a human can purchase. Mickey Mouse has been working out okay in that regard. More recently, Pixar’s Cars movies, which most adult audiences find mediocre at best, have made over ten billion dollars in merchandising (for comparison, the two movies themselves have only made about one billion). Kids like Lightning McQueen; apparently they’ll but anything with that stupid car on it. I couldn’t tell you why. So he goes fast, big deal. Get over yourself, Lightning.
Baymax is different. I saw the movie in a theater packed with kids and their parents, and I couldn’t tell you who laughed more every single time that adorable, naive machine said a line. Every moment he’s on screen is gold, literally and metaphorically. Wall-E, Doug, and Olaf were recent examples of Disney cuteness, but Baymax annihilates them on the lovability scale. He makes Big Hero 6 a great movie instead of just a good one.
Yes, this review is about a whole movie, not just about the gelatinous healthcare robot which steals the show. The story doesn’t belong to him but to Hiro, a precocious teen prodigy whose goal is to get accepted into the Tech Institute his older brother attends. In order to do so, he creates revolutionary new microbot technology with unlimited uses (which definitely shouldn’t fall into the wrong hands, ahem). Sure enough, bad things happen and Hiro must team up with four other misfit inventors from the Institute in order to stop a masked villain who may as well not have a mask since their identity is so obvious. Okay, okay, it’s an animated movie, I’ll let that one slide.
The five heroes (with Baymax being the sixth) decide to become superheroes using their own technological inventions, because I guess everyone’s into superheroes nowadays, right? Funny thing is, the movie actually is based on a Marvel comic book, and I’m kind of surprised Disney didn’t really display that fact up front. What’s different about Big Hero 6, besides the fact that it’s animated and rated PG, is that it’s pretty self-reflexive about it being a superhero movie. They don costumes because one of them (Fred, played perfectly by love-him-or-hate-him T.J. Miller) is a huge comic geek who wants to have his own origin story.
While it’s interesting that their superpowers don’t come from something like a radioactive spider or being born on an alien planet, but rather from their own intelligence and inventiveness, the superhero stuff isn’t really the movie’s strong suit one way or another. The villain is underdeveloped, the powers are a little unimaginative, and the third act is yet another loud, predictable action scene that culminates in a climax ripped unsubtly from several other films like it, including fellow Marvel-based ones. The saving grace, though, is that the action always looks incredible.
In fact, Big Hero 6 is easily one of the most gorgeous animated movies I’ve ever seen, with the technical expertise to match July’s bar-setting How To Train Your Dragon 2. The level of detail of the world is nothing short of astounding, and the city of San Fransokyo where the movie is set combines Eastern and Western sensibilities to create a place that’s familiar and new at the same time. It’s clear that the animators of the movie have just as much reverence for Japanese animation as they do American, and the blending of the two just feels right. As with Dragon, this movie doesn’t shy away from stylized characters and exaggerated futuristic spectacle, even while some elements appear photo-realistic.
Back to Baymax, who loses some of his charm once Hiro makes him a cool suit of armor and wings, allowing Hiro to fly around on his back (kind of like another pair of animated heroes…) In any case, the action forks the movie away from the masterful humor that Baymax brings to the first half. Before all this superhero stuff really gets going, there’s a good stretch that’s just Hiro and Baymax interacting. These are easily the film’s best moments and some of the best comedy of the year. When Baymax is low on energy, he acts drunk. There’s no way a single soul in the theater I was in didn’t completely crack up during that scene, though the reasons for laughter varied with age.
But really, the movie would be better off if it was “Big Hero 2”. When it’s just the two of them, also effectively cements a relationship which becomes incredibly heartfelt later on, especially since Baymax represents a lot more to Hiro than just a robotic nurse. The emotional content is part Wall-E and part The Iron Giant, but it manages to feel fresh nonetheless. The other four heroes may add some energy to the mix, but ultimately they just make a lot of noise and distract from the duo at the core of the film.
Like Disney Animation Studio’s last movie, Frozen — and how did I not mention Frozen until now? — Big Hero 6 embraces some pretty progressive themes. It tackles our modern relationship with technology without vilifying it. At the start of the movie, Hiro builds robots to battle for illegal cash, and he beats a much older opponent while controlling the robot like it was a video game he’s memorized a million time; one might see this as an old-fashioned condemnation of ‘screen-obsessed youth’. But very soon after, the movie completely and happily subverts that expectation by painting technology as a tool for endless creativity with unlimited opportunities to make the world a better place. The movie smartly points out that while technology can be destructive, it can also make us feel better not just physically, but emotionally. It all depends on what we do with technology, not what technology is doing to us.
Without a Pixar movie this year, Disney Animation Studios moves even further into its sister company’s territory. Big Hero 6 is another entry into what is now indisputably a second Renaissance for the studio. A great accomplishment considering it couldn’t seem to find its footing after 2D animation came crashing down around them. With stunning, imaginative animation, a great sense of humor, smart and timely subject matter, and a good dose of heart, it’s almost easy to forgive Big Hero 6 when it becomes yet another predictable superhero narrative with a kid-friendly skin.
And Baymax makes it even easier. Now where can I order one?
Score: 4 out of 5