I am not satisfied with my care
review by Thom Yee
Up till now, from Frozen to How to Train Your Dragon to Transformers the Movie, if you were reading an animated movie review here on GOO Reviews, no doubt about it, you were reading a review by Grace. Just like if you were reading a superhero movie GOO Review, after noticing its markedly greater sophistication and reasoning, you’d find that you were reading a review by me, Thom. But Big Hero 6? That’s a Disney movie! And it’s a Marvel movie! Disney movie. Marvel movie. Disney. Marvel. Disney. Marvel. What to do? The short answer is Grace is taking a bit of time off, and the Marvel connection was just a little too strong for me, Thom, to ignore. So here we are.
Would it surprise you to know that, like most anything else of cultural importance, I knew about Big Hero 6 before most anyone else and far before this year’s movie? That I can track the team’s origins way, way back to the first mini-series the heroes ever appeared in in 1998? That I actually bought that mini-series as a wee teenager, enjoyed it a little bit, recognized it for its Japanophile-istic leanings, and catalogued it away with all the various other bits of comicbook minutiae I can instantly recall at a moments notice so that you and I will have something to talk when the movie comes out? Well, the preceding is all true, and, like so many other adaptations, Big Hero 6 the movie isn’t exactly like Big Hero 6 the comic.
Originally in the Marvel Universe, Big Hero 6 began as Japan’s nationally sanctioned superhero team, the same way the Avengers are America’s, Excalibur is England’s, and Alpha Flight is Canada’s (though, unlike the others, Canada’s Alpha Flight generally suffers more from internal problems and usually has to be bailed out by the X-Men). The team was built around existing Marvel heroes Sunfire and the Silver Samurai as its lynchpin characters, adding in boy-genius Hiro and his robot bodyguard Baymax, secret agent Honey Lemon, wielder of the Power Purse from which she could find almost any devices she needed (unlike most purses, from which nobody can ever find anything in), and the hot-headed GoGo Tomago, who could turn her body into a ball of energy propelled at super-speeds. So no Wasabi or Fred (they would come later), no older-brother inspiration, just espionage and governments and ghostly villains embodying the collective unconscious of the restless spirits killed in the World War II Japanese nuclear bombings.
But 1998 was a long, long time ago, and most of us can’t even remember what it was like before Instagram let us share pictures of the kale salads we had for dinner. And so Big Hero 6 has been largely forgotten alongside Bear Grylls’ scaling of Mount Everest, the Nagano Olympics, and the memory of just how good a search engine Infoseek used to be before Disney bought it.
Moving forward to the present day, and on the one hand, Big Hero 6 appears to represent the best possible merging of one of Marvel’s forgotten intellectual properties and Disney’s youth-oriented fairytale storytelling instincts (unlike the whole Disney-Infoseek/Go.com thing). The marketing has been nearly flawless for the movie, with lush, engrossing visuals, engaging character archetypes, and commercials and featured moments that draw genuine laughs from a wide variety of moviegoers. On the other hand… Disney still had a movie to make, and good movies don’t usually just happen.
Hiro Hamada is your typical near-futuristic orphaned, pre-teen, hyper-genius slacker more concerned with building and fighting robots than doing something with his life. But when his fairly smart-but-maybe-not genius older brother and role model Tadashi dies in a mysterious explosion just after inspiring Hiro to follow in his footsteps at super-science university, Hiro loses all hope until finding that a mysterious villain is using his microbot inventions to scuttle around the city looking like a supervillain because heroic origins. Teaming with Tadashi’s four schoolmate scientist friends and Baymax, the lovable automaton and last symbol of everything Tadashi believed in, the group comes together as Big Hero 6 to defeat the unidentified masked villain. A masked villain who still hasn’t done anything all that villainous other than stealing Hiro’s microbots. Microbots that it seems like Hiro could easily build more of, but I guess he never really cared about his inventions all that much in the first place?
If you read that synopsis and noticed that it doesn’t exactly hang together (and I think I made that pretty explicit), then you might be able to guess what kind of movie you’re in for. I’ve never been the type to demand that animated movies aimed primarily at children need to build an enormous amount of logical connective tissue, but they still need to be built on a solid foundation. Particularly with the relatively elastic realities of animated movies, most of us can make all the necessary leaps of logic, and ignore any oddities or inconsistencies in the name of entertainment, but there are some major holes all throughout Big Hero 6 that almost seem to come more from the arrogance of producers that assume audiences are fine with filling those holes in themselves rather than from a lack of storytelling ability. More on that later.
On the bright side, Big Hero 6 is a bright, shiny world full of potential, and one can’t help but feel like there are many strong stories to be told in San Fransokyo (no matter how insultingly on-the-nose that name may be). The geography of a city with the sloping hills and bayside locales of San Francisco combined with the architecture and iconography of Tokyo is obviously appealing to a lot of the baser fantasies of where people would like to live, even if Big Hero 6 tends a little bit more toward the dark, pallid back allies and warehouse districts of its world. More importantly, the movie is successful in creating a world open to possibilities, where super-science is not only possible but admirable, encouragement and caring is present even if parents aren’t, and the inherent wonder of shapeshifting microbots is not only recognized but celebrated. This is a hopeful world where anything is possible, erring far more on the kid’s fantasy side of Marvel’s IPs than the dreadful realities of its more allegorical works (i.e., the X-Men).
Its characters, though underserved in many areas, are at least colourful and racially diverse, and their exploits are entertaining, audacious, and even somewhat substantial. Make no mistake, Big Hero 6 is a fun, engaging movie with action, adventure, meaningful lessons, empathetic situations that represent the losses each of us have felt, and humour that resonates across child-adult barriers. Baymax has everything he needs to be an amiable, memorable, and completely unintimidating mascot, and his lovable, affable and consistent personality and presence is easily the bright spot of the movie. The heroes of Big Hero 6 will fit perfectly in everything from animated specials to Happy Meals to holiday ornaments.
Big Hero 6 works on every level but the depth it needs to deliver any real impact. It’s a really shallow story, where the only emotion that comes through is the pride Hiro’s brother Tadashi feels in building Baymax, who was initially designed to be a personal healthcare robot. Hiro receives just enough backstory so that he can pass the test of character, but beyond the obvious outward characteristics of nerdy Honey Lemon, tough GoGo, cowardly for his size Wasabi, and slacker-goof Fred, the group just kind of blends together in a grouping nearly devoid of variation and almost utterly without conflict.
Lest you think the above is all over-analysis, a lot of the problems I have with the movie are things that would’ve stuck out to me when I was a kid. Why didn’t Hiro build another uplink so that he could take control (or at least rival the villain’s control of) the microbots? Why didn’t he just build more microbots to fight the now evil microbots? Or why didn’t he spend his time figuring out a way to deactivate the microbots? All of those options seem like a better, more effective way to confront the bad guy. Tadashi has been worried about his brother’s lack of ambition, Hiro instantly falls in love with his brother’s super-science school, so why didn’t Tadashi introduce him to the school earlier? The villain wanted to steal Hiro’s microbots so he started a fire? Are super-science schools that much more explosive than normal schools, and has the state of super-science not yet solved for fire suppression? Why do Professor Callaghan and obvious villain-bait Alistair Krei look so alike that they could be father and son? Is it just a coincidence that the only member of Big Hero 6 without the merit of super-science research rich, thus giving him something to contribute to the group? Is the world of Big Hero 6 already full of supervillainous potential, or will this new group whose sole purpose seems to be defeating super-crime prove to be a self-perpetuating circle of super conflict where the only real losers are the innocent bystanders? Okay, so maybe I wouldn’t have asked that last one as a kid.
Continuing the one notably awful trend that’s dogged Marvel throughout its cinematic universe, Big Hero 6 has an incredibly hollow and unimpressive villain, particularly given that villains have tended to be one of Disney’s greatest strengths. The movie relies heavily on the villain to maintain anonymity to the point where he never really says anything or, as I stated earlier, really does anything until late in the story and Hiro and company have had the time and built the determination to form a functioning crime-fighting unit. Up until that point he’s just kind of floating around, completely silent, and the only reason we know he’s a supervillain at all is his outward appearance, the fact that he stole Hiro’s microbots, and the fact that superhero stories need villains.
What comes through most clearly in Big Hero 6 is the strong visuals, colourful characters, fairly strong comedic instincts, and an over-reliance on predictable, fairly empty storytelling. In fact, if cliché storytelling didn’t exist, we might not even understand Big Hero 6, as the tropes of the heroic origin help us to make the logical leaps the story needs to work even if it doesn’t want to have to spend enough time on them. The kids are orphaned, but it doesn’t matter, Hiro’s wasted potential is forced, everyone at the super-science university is working on stuff that’s instantly weaponizable, the bad guy’s identity is obvious but still played for shock value and his motivations are flat and rendered meaningless in the end. And it’s not that any of the weaknesses I’ve mentioned are unexpected or that American cartoons are supposed to have incredible depth, it’s that skipping over all of the that storytelling, all of those moments for embellishment, rob the movie of the opportunities it needs for anything to feel like it really matters.
None of those things are absolutely necessary for a successful Disney movie, but a winning Disney movie does far more than Big Hero 6 does, and one look no further than 2012’s Wreck-it Ralph to see how much more the company has to offer. Even its recent animated shorts like Paperman or even Feast, the short that precedes Big Hero 6 itself, tell far more absorbing and relatively complete stories, effectively using an economy of running time and a complete lack of words to their greatest effect. Big Hero 6 has all the elements of a solid movie, but it never gets there, and what’s most alarming is that everything that’s missing feels more like a cynical choice to churn out a movie that’s just good enough rather than a lack of talent involved. The other works I’ve mentioned even in this paragraph show the dedication to the strong, effective storytelling that Disney’s known for at its best, and even though Big Hero 6 is far from Disney at its worst, it’s certainly not much more than average in most every way that matters.
Big Hero 6 final score: 6.5
On the Edge
- I refuse to believe that weary, tentative Wasabi drives a manual transmission. Just doesn’t fit no matter how much GoGo may have needed it to be to make that getaway.
- Fun fact: Hiro’s original surname was Takachiho, changed for obvious reasons of “What’s easier to pronounce?”
- Really wish the marketing team had left the deflating-Baymax/scotch-tape scene for us to discover in the movie instead of ruining it with the ad. Sure it was a great ad, but it could’ve been the funniest thing in the movie.
- So… is Baymax ever going to help so many people, or is he just gonna keep being some kind of rocket-superhero?
- I’ll still probably end up buying a few Baymax toys this Christmas. For the kids.