There’s always a certain questioning after the Academy Awards of whether the big winners really deserved their accolades. This conversation has begun to creep in with the more recent Best Animated Feature Oscar (the award was established in 2002). The award has largely been given to Disney/Pixar films (the outliers being Shrek, Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Happy Feet, Rango, and Spirited Away, which was technically dubbed and distributed by Disney). Even with the category’s wide eclecticism—foreign animation gets frequently nominated—the award still draws ire because it seems to go to films that fit with what the old white men of the Academy decree animation can be.
Thus, its nabbing the big prize will tar Big Hero 6 in the eyes of some. Which is a shame, all things considered. While it doesn’t set the world on fire, Big Hero 6 is still tremendous fun. Its gorgeous animation, incredible voice cast, and utter positivity about superheroics and science all blend into a good movie, even if the story is a little overfamiliar to superhero diehards.
In future San Fransokyo (a mashup of, well, San Francisco and Tokyo), child prodigy Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) uses his smarts to make money in the city’s underground robot fighting circuit. This annoys his older brother Tadeshi (Daniel Henney), a student at the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology who convinces him to apply early by showing him all the cool stuff they have. Hiro meets his brother’s friends/fellow geniuses GoGo Tamago (Jamie Chung), tough as nails and working with electromagnetic wheel axles; Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), a neurotic and OCD worrywart working with plasma lasers; and Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), a genius chemist with Rapunzel-from-Tangled levels of charm. There’s also Fred (a never-better T. J. Miller), a comic-loving slacker who is “By day, school mascot. But by night. . .I am also the school mascot.”
Most importantly, Tadeshi introduces Hiro to Baymax (Scott Adsit, who gives the most emotional performance of a machine since Douglas Rain in 2001), an inflatable robot meant to serve as a healthcare companion (and based on actual research in the fledging field of soft robotics). This lights a fire under Hiro and he hurriedly builds a fleet of thought-controlled microbots (again based on real technology) that he uses to wow legendary inventor and school head Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell) at a technology expo for new students.
Hiro’s stunning presentation also intrigues tech mogul Alistair Krei (Alan Tudyk), who offers Hiro an enormous sum for his invention. Hiro says no. When a fire breaks out at the Expo, leading to Tadeshi’s death, a grief-stricken Hiro shuts himself off from the world and his new friends. Not even Baymax or his aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph) can reach him with their appeals.
But when Hiro discovers a stray microbot is still alive and wanting to zoom towards its seemingly dead brethren, he and Baymax track it to an abandoned warehouse. They discover that Hiro’s microbots not only survived the fire but are being produced in mass quantities by a mysterious masked man who nearly kills them when he finds them. Angry and wanting answers about his brother’s death, Hiro shapes Baymax and his new friends into a makeshift superteam to take down this new villain.
Like all superhero origin stories (and, the grouches argue, most superhero movies), the film’s story is pretty easy to guess at as it unfolds. I mean, it’s a superhero film and a Disney film; you know the good guys win. But that doesn’t mean the film is devoid of any uniqueness. Quite the contrary.
Why do I say that? Well, for starters, this is probably the most joyful superhero movie since The Avengers. And it’s easily the most kid-friendly. But it’s the good kind of kid-friendly, where parents and older animation fans can find a lot to like.
The most astonishing thing about this film is it’s bright. Colorful. Joyful. For all the literary acclaim and acceptance superhero comics have gotten these last few decades, those qualities were largely lost until recently in favor of catering to teenaged and adult fans with studied explanations of powers—what NPR’s Glen Weldon calls “vivisecting the unicorn”—and grim, dour heroics. Despite being very loosely based on an ultra-obscure Marvel team from 2008, the film hearkens back to the Silver Age of comics, with its vibrant colors, character-driven focus, and overriding love of capital-S science as a plot device and explainer.
This film has, like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a great beating heart at the center of it all. There’s real pain and loss here but it’s also joyful in the way the best Disney animated films tend to be. It’s exuberant in the sheer coolness of superheroes that American cape comics were once and are starting to be again. The film doesn’t shy away from this. Heck, Fred spends much of his screentime flipping out at how cool everything they’re doing is. “I mean, it’s scary, obviously,” he says as they’re being chased by a monster, “but how cool!” Just about sums it up right there.
This is a very enjoyable superhero story that’s also the most kid-friendly one I’ve seen in a long time. It’s not transcendent for the genre, as Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was, but it’s not as lousy and rushed as Superman: Doomsday. In terms of team origin stories, this has the sheen of The Avengers than whatever dour nonsense Zack Snyder’s Justice League turns out to be. Real, beating heart at the center of it all. Not afraid to be bright. Something comics—and movies—could use more of.
Tom Speelman blogs at tomtificate and is a staff writer and reviewer for Another Castle and a contributor to Sequart. He’s currently writing a book on Star Trek and rants about that, comics, anime, cartoons, Transformers, and such like @tomtificate on Twitter.