Film Review: Big Hero 6

Year: 2015 (UK release)
Directors: Don Hall, Chris Williams
Starring: Scott Adsit, Ryan Potter

Month number 2 of 2015 brings robot movie number 2, and a very different prospect from January’s Ex Machina. With Chappie releasing in March it would be amazing we could maintain mechanical momentum and have a new – and very different – robot-centric film every month this year. I doubt that will happen, but until the bubble bursts this robot-loving cinema-goer is planning on thoroughly enjoying it.

So then, on to Disney’s latest offering and, significantly, its first straight-up mouse-branded film drawn from a Marvel Comic. Disney’s version is a significant departure from its source, particularly with regards to the robotic protagonist Baymax, but the result is a film that – while it may not push any boundaries in terms of plot – manages to thoroughly warm the heart and to delight the eye.

Screencap from Disney's Big Hero 6. Official Trailer 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=khtFNzVPIh8

Screencap from Disney’s Big Hero 6. Official Trailer 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=khtFNzVPIh8

The story begins with two brothers who have chosen to employ their considerable talent in robotics in very different directions. Hiro takes his creations to illegal bot fighting and gambling dens, while his elder brother, Tadashi, aspires to help people as many people as possible by inventing a medical care robot. The resulting creation is Baymax, an inflatable nurse-bot that it’s impossible not to love. Yet just as Hiro begins to follow in his brother’s footsteps and use his skills more positively, tragedy strikes. From then on the film moves through three distinct phases: grieving, bonding and kicking-arse!

As we saw in the superb Up, Disney aren’t afraid to explore grief and loss and Big Hero 6 taps into a similarly affecting vein, although  -rather than a chubby scout and talking dog – here it takes a cuddly robot to break through the griever’s icy shroud. Baymax is this film’s lovable heart. He’s a fantastic creation and surely deserves his instant admission to the top tier of all time favourite Disney characters. The scenes as Hiro gradually bonds with the lumbering blimp he has inherited are beautifully done and for me were the highlight of the film. Indeed, I could easily have sat through more of these as the action does become rather more generic once Hiro moves towards weaponising his inflatable buddy and recruiting his brother’s lab-mates in the high-tech battle against a masked enemy.

Big Hero 6: Official poster

Big Hero 6: Official poster

This isn’t to say the final third of the film isn’t immensely enjoyable: it’s fast paced, full of humor and dazzling to watch but the superhero team origin story has been done so many times that it’s hard to make it feel fresh. Big Hero 6 accepts this, and rather than trying to reinvent the wheel (although one character pretty much does this with her superfast magnetic axles) the film gets away with reusing some pretty tired tropes through its meta-humour. The narrative draws explicit attention to its more generic elements, usually through the mouth of stonerish comic book nerd Fred: “this is our origin story” he exclaims at one point. There are some great moments as the team come together, calling out the clichés of the superhero genre even as they act them out  – “there are no red lights in car chases” –  rather like a much more family friendly version of Kick-Ass.  It’s great fun, but it never quite shines like the earlier Baymax bonding scenes.

I’ve compared Big Hero 6 to several other movies already and there are plenty more titles that could be chucked into the mix. The Iron Giant, Scooby Do, Robot and Frank… the film takes elements of each of these and more. Indeed amalgamation is very much a theme here, signposted from the panoramic opening frames which establish the film’s setting of San Fransokyo, a city which, just as it sounds, wonderfully combines elements of Western and Eastern culture. The animation here is superb – it feels leveled up even from some of the more recent Disney / Pixar CG efforts – and the sight of a bridge that combines the iconic architecture of The Golden Gate with the that of a Shinto shrine is truly a delight.

It’s pleasing that the film’s Asian influences extend to its attitude to its mechanical hero too. Western culture typically betrays an uneasy attitude towards advanced artificial intelligence – just how many incarnations of the ‘robots rebel and kill all the humans’ trope can you name? Many of these are fantastically entertaining and engaging stories, of course, but as a robot fan I’ll admit I always find it quite refreshing when technology is portrayed more positively – as it seems to be more frequently in Asian culture. As Pacific Rim writer Travis Beacham, has noted:  

In traditional Western cinema technology is treated as a kid of Faustian deal with the devil that’s going to come back to bite you in the ass. But if you look at the Asian tradition of storytelling, technology is a tool and a solution to problems

(quoted in Pacific Rim, Man, Machines and Monsters).

Big Hero 6 takes a similar line: it portrays technology as a force for good (all of the team’s powers come from tech rather than magic or mutation) and proves that not all robots go Skynet and try to take over minutes after booting up.

This is what normally happens in Western movies:  "Now is the time for the liberation of Robotkind" Soundwave in Transformers Animated episode 10.

Although plenty still do!
This is what normally happens in Western movies:
“Now is the time for the liberation of Robotkind”
Soundwave in Transformers Animated episode 10.

Overall, then, Big Hero 6 is a slightly uneven film that doesn’t quite maintain the magic of its first half, but it’s still a triumphant watch and one which builds on the firm foundations of Wreck It Ralph to suggest that we might have geek culture to thank for some of the finest Disney films the studio has produced for very many years. Take a bow geeks! *bows*

Oh, and – in case you’re wondering – this is being a Marvel property, yes there is a post-credits scene and it’ll almost certainly extend the grin that the preceding film has already put on your face.

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