One of the things that fanboys asked the moment Marvel was sold to Disney was, “Does this mean we'll see Pixar superhero movies?”
With Brad Bird currently working on a screenplay for “The Incredibles 2,” Pixar has no need to get into the Marvel business, and Marvel's live-action movies are so successful that I can't really imagine them handling over a viable franchise to an animated division. Walt Disney Feature Animation was given permission to go through Marvel's vast catalog of characters to see if there was anything in there that they might spark to, anything they could make their own, and when they found “Big Hero 6,” an obscure team book created by Man Of Action's Duncan Rouleau and Steven T. Seagle, they found their way in.
Right now, it feels like WDFA is on a roll. You can divide the history of Disney animation into eras, and there have been plenty of low spots over the years between the high spots. It's a cycle, and it almost feels like it has to happen, like a forest fire that clears the brush to help make the forest stronger. Since “Bolt,” there's been a sense that the studio has been working to redefine itself, and I like that they haven't leaned entirely on the Katzenberg era model. “Frozen” felt like a smart and funny spin on the big musical form that defined Katzenberg's time at the studio, sure, but looking at “Wreck-It Ralph” or “Big Hero 6,” there's also been a real feeling that they're staking out their own voice and making films that they're actually excited to see.
Directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams, “Big Hero 6” tells the story of Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), a 14 year old big-brained scientific prodigy who would rather make money off illegal back-alley robot fights than go to college. That changes when his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) takes him to see the work he's doing at an advanced university lab. “Nerd school,” as Hiro calls it, turns out to be exactly what he wants, and he decides he's got to win an annual tech showcase event, gaining the attention of Professor Callaghan (James Cromwell) in the process.
When Hiro's big night ends in tragedy, Hiro finds himself on a path familiar to anyone who has ever read a comic book. With the help of Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), Go Go Tomago (Jamie Chung), Wasabi Ginger (Damon Wayans Jr) and Fred (TJ Miller), Hiro sets out to discover the identity of a creepy Kabuki-faced villain who is behind whatever's happening. Add a few big set pieces, shake thoroughly, and you've got an energetic and exciting action-comedy that makes the argument that animation is still better suited to superhero action than live-action.
The film's breakout character is Baymax, voiced by Scott Adsit. Built to serve as a personal health companion, the big white robot is sweet by nature and soft by design, and he is completely focused on Hiro's well-being. Baymax is one of those characters who can basically do no wrong. Every sequence he's part of is automatically funnier just because he's onscreen. The film tries a little too hard during the end to jerk the tears, but I suspect Baymax is going to end up being one of the holiday season's biggest icons this year, and that toy stores everywhere are going to be full off the little guy.
The most appealing thing about the film is that none of the characters have actual special powers. These are smart kids, and their only real weapon is that they're smart. They build the tech that they use to protect themselves, and they have to think their way through each encounter with the bad guy in the film, learning how to use their powers not just as individuals but as a team. It is a celebration of being a nerd for something, for anything. These are characters I want my kids to enjoy and embrace, because each of them is presented as an equal. The two girls on the team are both front and center, and they're not there as romantic interests to anyone. They are simply scientists who happen to be girls, and it's done so matter-of-factly that I think this is a perfect example of how to embrace diversity and representation without overdoing it. The voice cast all seems to really enjoy what they're doing, with TJ Miller in particular sounding like a perfect fit for Fred, who doesn't actually attend the school. He's just a science fan, and he hangs around so he can watch. Miller's at about 80% Spicoli here, and he's very funny.
As much as the action stuff works and would indicate that any other property Marvel entrusts to the animation side of things is in good hands, “Big Hero 6” gets by more on the charms of its comedy. There's a chase scene in the film that made my oldest son laugh harder than I've ever seen him laugh in a movie theater. It's the energy of the staging, the specific little bits of slapstick and the way it escalates. You know your movie is funny when you can just have a character walk carefully across a room and you get a huge rolling audience laugh every time. The script, credited to Robert L. Baird & Daniel Gerson and Jordan Roberts, does a nice job of hitting the marks, moving confidently forward at every point, but it's so streamlined that it almost makes it feel inconsequential. Maybe because it's Disney, they were afraid to rough the team up too much, but it feels in the film like everything is fairly easy for Hiro, including the ultimate resolution of the film. I may be asking for stakes that Disney isn't willing to play with in a family film, though, which is fair.
“Big Hero 6” should end up taking its place as a busy, ongoing piece of the Walt Disney Feature Animation story, with spin-offs and sequels and the like, and it certainly keeps the momentum going for the energized studio.
“Big Hero 6” is in theaters everywhere November 6.