BIG HERO 6

Feels: the Motion Picture.

Disney is on a fucking roll. 2014 seems to be their year in cinema, dominating pretty much every quarter with offerings that bring out the best in their (recaptured) alchemy of commercial product and great storytelling. Since Wreck-It Ralph, it seems like Disney has been determined to learn from the Pixars and Dreamworks of the world and produce a great story where it’s abundantly obvious, in spite of flaws (and I still maintain that Ralph is a thematically troubled film), that they really do give a shit. If Ralph was about self-acceptance in an indifferent world, and Frozen about reconciliation and estrangement, then Big Hero 6 is about the importance of support when healing from loss. And it’s not just about the catharsis of healing, but a mature emotional understanding of the futility of revenge and the need for connection and empathy with others, even balloon robots.

That’s weighty stuff for a “kids’ movie”. It seems like Disney isn’t happy to just synthesize storytelling and commercialism, but want to transcend the limitations of other kinds of labels while they’re at it. It seems improper to call Big Hero 6 a “kids’ movie” in the sense that we use that label to dismiss a thing as being for a select audience, as being emotionally and intellectually fulfilling only to the extent that a kid can “handle it”. I’m pretty skeptical of that mentality to begin with, but I know it exists. Big Hero 6 is really the kind of thing people mean when they use the vague, frustrating, and cloying label of “all ages”. Anyway, lest this review become a tirade about labels, let’s leave it at the idea that such things don’t serve a movie like this very well. While people have become more open-minded about entertainment in recent years, we still live in a world where there will be people who dismiss Big Hero 6 because it’s “for kids” or, worse, because it’s animated. I know I bring this shit up almost every other review I do for an animated film, but let me say again that you should not let that shit stop you. The time to broaden your damn horizons is now!

You’ll be missing out on one of the year’s best films if you don’t. Not just as a great, moving story about dealing with loss but also one of the greatest science fiction movies of the year. Big Hero 6 is so pro-science, so pro-technology, that the joy of this world of technical invention that we’re inheriting and creating is palpable in a way that you don’t really get outside of the choir, or outside of stuff like Cosmo that is pretty much preaching to it. If that doesn’t sound like your kind of thing, then maybe the fact that Big Hero 6 is as kick-ass a superhero movie as any other Marvel (it’s loosely based on a Marvel comic) offering will interest you.

That and this is the closest thing to a sequel of The Incredibles that we’ll probably ever get. Hopefully I eat those words in 3-5 years but I feel comfortable with them now.

SPOILERS AHEAD

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Tadashi, through Baymax, is the heart of the movie.

Hiro (Ryan Potter) is a boy-genius who would rather spend his time hustling illegal robot fights than trying to advance his skills or knowledge through conventional education. His brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney), is the opposite. He believes in helping people, in a common good, and surrounds himself with the support of others. His greatest invention is a nurse robot named Baymax (Scott Adsit), who’s programming yields a personality that is completely heart-warming. Baymax is like if a lazy, loyal, and humongous dog could talk back to you and check your vitals. When Tadashi dies in an apparent accident, Baymax is all Hiro has left.

Crippled by the loss, Hiro eventually discovers that Tadashi’s death may not have been an accident. Justifying it to Baymax as a way to help heal himself, Hiro launches a campaign to find out who killed Tadashi. Along the way, he enlists the help of Tadashi’s classmates and friends, most of whom are also genius inventors. They form a superteam to hunt down the “Kabuki Man” who has stolen Hiro’s microbot technology and may be involved with the accident. With the help of a super-powered Baymax, pushed way beyond his original parameters by a revenge (and thrill) seeking Hiro, they form Big Hero 6.

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Hopefully they’ll spend a bit more time on these guys in a potential sequel.

One of the best parts of the film is the team and the way they are used less as a “superhero team” and more as friends who want to help Hiro overcome his grief, just as they all help each other do the same. Each of them brings something to the table as a super team, though. Neurotic Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.) makes cutting lasers, comforting Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) is a chemist, and tough-girl Go Go (Jamie Chung, in her defining role thus far) works with magnetism and engineering. Fred (TJ Miller), the comic relief who comes up with the nicknames, turns out to be the rich benefactor who secretly wants to be some kind of fish monster. Most of these guys don’t get much character development, unfortunately, but all have strong personalities and designs that leave you wanting more as opposed to questioning their involvement (which is the worst-case for this kind of movie). I was reminded of Kung Fu Panda, really, where the secondary support cast also don’t get developed as much as they maybe should. If this is a flaw, though, it’s a small one and easily forgivable because of the quality of what we do get.

To be completely fair, we do get quite a bit of mileage out of Fred. He’s the one with many of the best lines, the weirdest and possibly best costume, and who we get the most background on. That said, my personal favorite character in the film is Go Go. Her costume, power, and attitude are so fucking cool, that when her catch phrase turns out to be “Woman up!” (so awesome to include something like this, even as an aside), I was just like “fuck yes I will”. As the group speedster, her hero scenes get a lot of love from the animators and she just looks the coolest every time she’s on screen. To the extent that Big Hero 6 is also an empowerment fantasy, it feels inclusive and nicely acknowledges the well-established criticism of the superhero genre as being primarily one of masculine empowerment.

Beyond the team, there’s also Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph) who infuses a lot of warmth into the movie, and the two antagonist (mostly with each other) scientists Callaghan (James Cromwell) and Krei (Alan Tudyk). Callaghan and Krei aren’t in the movie much, but their rivalry and enmity inform a lot of the themes and also the wittiness of the script. Fred, pointing out the obvious tropes of the comic book superhero movie that Big Hero 6 is, seizes immediately on Krei as the villainous Kabuki Man. After all, he expresses a lot of interest in the telepathically controlled microbots Hiro created.

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Thanks to the brilliant animation of the microbots, which seriously pictures can’t capture, Kabuki Man is pretty fucking scary for a kids’ movie. Much like Pitch from Rise of the Guardians, I’d say.

But Big Hero 6 undermines the trope by having Krei represent a different kind of megalomania. In fact, megalomania resonates throughout this movie. Krei is all about the pursuit of science and technology for profit. He’s the face of what we fear: undercooked inventions that are supposed to liberate but wind up endangering. Callaghan is more responsible, but is also emotionally compromised by Krei’s carelessness. I liked that Krei wasn’t an Iron Man villain, if you know what I mean. He’s far more pitiable than that and this thematically suggests the smallness of the stupidity and short-sightedness that lead to technology being used before its ready. Callaghan is the one who represents technology misused, but Big Hero 6 demonstrates it’s pro-technology, pro-science stance by casting this not as an inevitability (as if the microbots themselves are simply Too Dangerous), but as the result of someone misusing them for what turn out to incredibly human reasons. You can’t help but feel sympathy for Callaghan, who does monstrous things with all the same motivations as Hiro. The difference is that Hiro has others around him to help support his overcoming of that, and through mostly Baymax, Big Hero 6 is very much about how badly we need that.

That, again, is some heavy stuff. And it gets heavier. Hiro, in probably the best scene in the movie in terms of sophistication and execution, turns Baymax into a killing machine in the name of revenge. Everything comes together in this sequence, on both the narrative and technical levels, to achieve something very complex and powerful in a very short and focused span of time. I’d go so far as to say it gets a little dark for what we might normally expect in a kids’ movie. I’d also say this is a very good thing because revenge is such a common and powerful motivation and theme in contemporary storytelling. Big Hero 6 rejects the simplicity of justice that characterizes someone like The Punisher or the bloody-minded avengers we often root for in fiction. Instead, justice is a complex balance of pursuit and restraint, a balance that occasionally has to be negotiated by people with the means to do so whether legally empowered or not.

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Baymax is the heat of the team. Get it? Heat? AHAHAHAHA.

In the wider cultural context, Big Hero 6 gets a lot more than commercial storytelling and attitude toward the future (represented by techno-optimism) right. This is probably the most diverse superhero movie ever. Both Hiro and Tadashi are Asian-Americans in the unique in-universe Asian-American fusion of San Fransokyo, and both are voiced by Asian-American actors. Half the rest of the cast are people of color in voice and character design. I didn’t know this would be the case going in. Definitely thought I was going to have to overlook the casting of white people as Asian characters and was delighted to find out this wasn’t the case. Not everyone cares about stuff like this, but they should.

And speaking of Asian-American fusion, a better blend of western comic book and anime/manga sensibilities would be difficult to find. Big Hero 6 draws inspiration from all over the nerd landscape, from Marvel comics to The Iron Giant to Japanese Superteam shows, to Studio Ghibli. Its use of that inspiration becomes a part of the continuum, as Big Hero 6 is thoroughly inspiring. There’s going to be kids who watch this movie and connect it directly to the technology and ideas that are emerging in the world today. This is intentional. There’s a lot of technobabble in Big Hero 6 and most of it seems legitimately based on existing ideas and tech. Big Hero 6 will be one of hopefully a legion of cultural artifacts that show us not just what we could do with the future we’re making, but what we should do. If you want a counterpunch to the depressingly anti-science Transformers 4, look no further.

I mean fuck, guys, this movie even has the first decent Fall Out Boy song in like a thousand years.

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Woman up!

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