Saturday, November 8, 2014

Review: Big Hero 6 (2014)

Big Hero 6 (2014)

Rated PG for action and peril, some rude humor, and thematic elements

Big Hero 6 is a fairly insubstantial entry in the Disney canon, but it's still a sweet, moving, intelligent, uproariously funny, and action-packed family adventure. Based on an obscure Marvel comic (add this to the list of reasons why that arrangement is paying off), it could've stood to have a bit more development for its plot, but when it comes to its characters, its values, and its very human core, it's bulletproof. It's not quite up there with Frozen, but it's on the same level as Wreck-It Ralph -- a smart, witty film that parents will enjoy just as much as their kids, and which refuses to talk down to them, promoting creativity and intellect rather than gross-outs and instantly-dated pop culture references.

Set in San Fransokyo, a version of the Bay Area that's been taken over by a '90s anime, our protagonist is Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter), a boy who just graduated high school at the age of thirteen and is now trying to follow his older brother Tadashi into the elite San Fransokyo Institute of Technology. Unfortunately, after wowing everyone there with a presentation of his micro-bots, a fire breaks out that kills Tadashi (man, does Disney love killing family members), sending Hiro into depression. However, he soon finds Tadashi's school project, a cushy, inflatable medical robot named Baymax who, through his programming, attempts to get Hiro out of his funk by reintroducing him to Tadashi's old friends at SFIT -- Gogo (Jamie Chung), an extreme sports gal studying electromagnetism, Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.), an OCD, slightly neurotic laser enthusiast, Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), a quirky and loopy chemist, and Fred (T. J. Miller), an idle-rich slacker who wears the mascot costume at sports games. Meanwhile, Hiro stumbles upon a plot by someone who seems to have stolen his thought-to-be-destroyed microbots, using them for some kind of nefarious plan. He and his friends immediately suspect Alistair Krei (Alan Tudyk), the CEO of a major tech company who tried to recruit Hiro after seeing his presentation, but as they find out, something else is afoot...

Right away, this film's greatest strengths make themselves apparent in how the characters are written and how their relationships are developed. This is a film that is all about its characters, who, thanks to great writing and great voice acting, all managed to stick in my head long after the film was over. Hiro and his friends are almost like a kids' movie version of the Avengers, and while Hiro is the main character, each of them feels like a fully fleshed-out human being. Any one of them could've easily fallen into one-note stereotypes -- Hiro the dull hero trying to avenge his brother, Gogo the tough chick, Honey Lemon the hippie granola girl, Wasabi the funny black guy, and Fred the funny white guy -- and the fact that not one of them did is a testament to the skill of everybody involved in creating them. Moreover, it's with these characters that the film's love of science and creativity truly shines through. The film's not content to just scream "I fucking love science!" without actually understanding what science is -- the characters relish in the drive for knowledge, and use that knowledge to save the day, building cool gadgets and that both look and sound awesome. They're easily among the best and most enjoyable scientists I've seen in a movie in a long time.

The real scene-stealer, however, is none other than Baymax, a machine with no understanding of humanity who still seeks to help any way he can, to often hilarious results. Baymax isn't one of those machines that develops a human "soul" -- he's committed to his programming from start to finish, whether that programming is Tadashi's medical care protocols or a karate routine that Hiro plugs into him, even if he takes everything much too literally. He's so non-threatening that he questions why Hiro is trying to stuff his cuddly balloon body into a suit of armor, arguing that it would impede on his ability to do his job by scaring the people he's trying to help. And when his battery runs low, you get the closest thing to drunkenness you'll see in a PG-rated Disney film, and one of the funniest moments in the whole movie. It's not always humorous, though -- a pivotal scene involves Hiro reprogramming him to make him more aggressive, with horrifying results.

Which brings me to the story, or as I should say, the stories. This is where I started having the problems that kept me from declaring this a flat-out classic, as while the first story is amazing, the second one didn't get nearly enough time devoted to it. But first, what I loved. The main story of this film is about Hiro learning to get past his brother's death with help from both Baymax and his new friends. I spoke at length above as to why I loved this story above -- namely, the great characters involved and how they interacted -- so I won't repeat that here. Then we get into the second half of the film, where the superhero story really takes off, and to be honest, it didn't fully come together. Which is a shame, because it had a lot going for it. Even though I was able to spot the big twist from a mile away, the themes it was trying to go for, about the importance of creativity and knowledge and the perils of vengeance, came through loud and clear. The latter theme in particular was masterfully shown in the interplay of Hiro and the villain, without it ever being spelled out for us. Had the film taken maybe fifteen more minutes to tell that story, this would've been a near-perfect movie and an easy 5 out of 5. Unfortunately, the superhero stuff doesn't really get going until the halfway mark, leaving the film just under an hour to tell a condensed origin story for our team of six big heroes ( I understand the title!). We get just the barest framework of a superhero movie, the film rushing to the finish line in the back half, to the point where, when the big climax arrived, I couldn't believe that the film was already close to done. Many important side characters get little development to flesh them out, and it felt as though huge chunks of story were skipped over, preventing the film from being as truly meaty as it could've been. It's clear where this film's passion was, and while I respect that, they could've saved some for the end.

That said, the action, visuals, and special effects were still wonderful, the finale ranking up there with anything Marvel's done in their live-action superhero movies. The style of a film is a big Far-East-meets-West-Coast fusion that both looks gorgeous on screen and feels cohesive rather than a mishmash. Directors Don Hall and Chris Williams did great work visualizing it, making San Fransokyo feel like a city I'd love to live in. The 3-D didn't do much for me, but it's there for those who like it.

Score: 4 out of 5

Or, to break it down, a 5 out of 5 for the first half and a 3 out of 5 for the second. I really wished this film could've kept up the high standard of quality it opened on, but it still ended on a good enough note that, by and large, I could easily forgive its mistakes. Big Hero 6 is one of the most affecting superhero movies in recent memory, a film that gets the most important things right, and it is highly recommended for both families and adult fans.

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