“Big Hero 6” – A Franchise in Search of a Raison d’Etre

Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6 (Don Hall/Chris Williams, 2014)

From Walt Disney comes a new adaptation of a lesser-known Marvel comics super team. This summer saw the release of the hip and cool (and terrifically fun) live-action Guardians of the Galaxy – also from Disney, and also taken from a heretofore obscure series – and now we get Big Hero 6, a much weaker animated confection that is trying so hard to be all things to all people that it ends up being very little to anyone at all. There are a few genuine laughs and some truly spectacular animation on display (though the 3D was unnecessary, and added nothing) – we would hope so, since this is Disney – but the end result is a fairly insipid mess, perhaps good for kids who don’t have anything else to see, but not worth watching beyond that.

Which is too bad, since the basic premise – that nerds are cool – is a good one. Too bad that they otherwise aren’t that different from any other misfit Disney heroes of the past. I did myself no favors by mistakenly assuming that this was a Pixar film before the screening, and so the lack of originality in the character development came as a bitter disappointment. Add to that the brutal barrage of video game music throughout the movie and my head was hurting by the time it was over. Though it is perhaps a little too obviously sentimental, the cute short film – Feast – that precedes the feature is far more interesting than the main event.

I had to laugh – which was not the directors’ intention – at the set-up of the movie. We are in “San Fransokyo,” a heavily Asianized – or Japanified, anyway – version of San Francisco (which in our real world is already a happy home to a large and diverse Asian population). There’s nothing wrong with that, but it feels like such an obvious pitch to the lucrative Chinese and pan-Asian market, as opposed to something organically justified by the story, that from the get-go I was on the defensive, expecting more crass commercialism, rather than pure story. After researching the source material, I see that the original comics take place entirely in Japan, and I think the movie would have been better served had the filmmakers kept to that location. The hybrid they create is not without its visual inventiveness (pagoda arches on the Golden Gate bridge, for example), but it feels like a cheap trick: let’s appeal to our traditional audience – and include an African-American nerd for good measure – but also position ourselves for the future.

The story focuses on Hiro, a 14-year-old genius whose early graduation from high school has left him free to pursue a black-market career in “bot fighting,” where he uses his small size and seemingly innocuous (but very lethal) robot to hustle larger and older players. His older brother Tadashi (also a brilliant robotics engineer) rescues Hiro from this aimless pursuit and convinces Hiro to apply to the same super college which he, himself, attends. In order to get in, Hiro must first come up with an original idea to impress the school’s leader, Professor Callaghan. Without much effort, it seems (indeed, another weakness of the film is how it sells genius as something that comes without the necessity for labor), Hiro creates – with help from Tadashi’s ragtag group of college friends – a swarm of “micro-bots” that he can control with a powerful computer headband. Wearing that device, he is able to make these tiny robots coalesce into any form he dreams up. He is, in short, like a god. Obviously, he is accepted into the college. But not before attracting the attention of some nefarious sorts who covet those micro-bots.

And then – of course – tragedy strikes, and Hiro is left on his own, in mourning. To his rescue comes an unlikely savior in the form of a first-aid robot – Baymax – designed by Tadashi. Baymax is the big, white fluffy Michelin man-like creature featured on the posters and in the trailers for the film. He’s a dear, and the scenes between him and Hiro are genuinely sweet and adorable . . . until they become cloyingly so. Soon, Hiro must re-program Baymax as a fighter (and design some nifty heavy-duty armor and jet propulsion for him, too), once he discovers a nasty super villain at work to destroy the city. With his mighty redesigned helpmate and Tadashi’s college buds in tow, Hiro becomes the de facto leader of the super nerds, redubbed at the end of the movie “Big Hero 6.” I think I see a potential franchise, no?

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