Deep Focus: Big Hero 6
In Disney’s Big Hero 6, a 14-year-old tech upstart named Hiro designs a “neurocranial” transmitter that deploys tiny robots—“microbots,” he calls them—to create any object he can imagine. What better metaphor is there for the computer-animation revolution of Pixar’s John Lasseter, whose teams have built entire worlds from digital bits? When Lasseter took charge of Disney animation after the mother company bought Pixar, he brought a new creative foundation to the house that Walt built, generating commercial and artistic hits like Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph as well as the phenomenon known as Frozen (that erratic, beloved mash-up of Wicked and “The Snow Queen”). Freely based on an obscure Marvel Comics title, Big Hero 6 finds the studio summoning up a fresh combination of action and whimsy. It’s swift, inventive, antic, and ardent, with virtuoso comic choreography and split-second slapstick timing. It transcends a typical third-act smack-down (and various other letdowns) with unassuming charm and pop-art poetry, drawing on cartoons as different as the lyric milestones of Hayao Miyazaki (whose last masterpiece, The Wind Rises, also salutes a precocious inventor, named Jiro) and Saturday-morning kiddie fare like Scooby-Doo.
Hiro doesn’t realize that, in the wrong hands, the microbots could re-define technology run amok. That’s what happens when a terrifying marauder in a fierce Noh theater mask steals and exploits the tiny robots. He uses them to form menacing stilts, lethal tentacles, and towers of visual babble. But Big Hero 6 is no apocalyptic saga. The character that gives the film its emotional balance and supplies “the Lasseter touch” is Hiro’s mechanical protector, Baymax—a macrobot indelibly suffused with humanity. Hiro’s older brother, Tadashi, conceives this cushy automaton as a “personal healthcare companion,” programmed for compassion. The robot maintains empathetic protocols even after Hiro armors it, teaches it karate, dubs it Baymax 2.0, and leads it into battle with four friends. (Together they make up Big Hero 6.)
You rarely think of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man when you look at Baymax, even when a teammate compares hugging it to embracing a warm marshmallow. A small black barbell in its caplet of a face stands for two eyes and a mouth; that modest shape becomes a prime minimalist tool for conveying everything from irrepressible nurturing to resolute, unblinking courage. Even the inflating and deflating of Baymax’s vinyl skin is amusing, especially in the robot equivalent of a drop-dead-funny drunk scene. Does Hiro read too much into Baymax’s expressions? Do we? On its own funny-paper terms, the movie explores how much a thinking machine can think and feel. By the end, Baymax’s bromides about reaching out to friends to relieve grief or risking all to save a human life come off as heartfelt wisdom.
Directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams, this mix of boy-and-his-bot fable and comic-book “origin story” unfolds in a seductive environment. The Pacific Rim metropolis of “San Fransokyo” fuses San Francisco’s fog-blasted atmospheres and hilly, eccentric beauty with Tokyo-like neon and skyscrapers. The house where Hiro and Tadashi live with their Aunt Cass is a Queen Anne Victorian crossed with a Japanese cottage; curved beams from traditional Shinto gates adorn the Golden Gate Bridge; trolley cars contain filigree fit for pagodas. The film positions futuristic high-rise developments, complete with sky-bridges and floating wind turbines, next to established landmarks like the Transamerica Pyramid. San Fransokyo has found a way of developing upward and increasing its density without losing its soul, innovation, or funk. Aunt Cass runs the cozy, history-drenched Lucky Cat Café from the first floor of her Queen Anne, while Tadashi attends the cutting-edge San Fransokyo Institute of Technology and Hiro haunts back-alleys to hustle bot fights. In Big Hero 6, Fog City is once again the City That Knows How.
As in today’s most popular comic-book origin tales (see TV’s Gotham and The Flash), family death haunts the backstory—and the foreground action, too. The brothers’ parents died a decade before the story opens. Ditzy Aunt Cass does her best to raise the boys, but Tadashi is the one who betters Hiro’s life when he diverts him from a bot fight to the SFIT science lab. That’s where Hiro meets the pals who become his crime-fighting allies: chemistry wizard Honey Lemon, laser-plasma master Wasabi, ultra-fanboy Fred, and fetching punk speed-freak GoGo Tomago, who bikes around the city on magnetically suspended wheels that later double as shields and deadly Frisbees. Hall, Williams, and screenwriters Daniel Gerson, Robert L. Baird and Jordan Roberts tap genuine adolescent volatility: it’s spot-on for Hiro to declare, “If I don’t go to this nerd school, I’m going to lose my mind!” He engineers his microbots for a tech contest and wins a spot on campus, bowling over revered Professor Callahan and Callahan’s bête noire, tech entrepreneur Alastair Krei. But Hiro can’t savor his accomplishments. The exhibition hall explodes in flames, catalyzing vendettas that stoke the mood-swinging plot.
The movie’s enchanting mid-section starts when Hiro stubs his toe and screams “Ow.” That automatically causes Baymax to inflate up and out of his carrying case and attempt to relieve human suffering. The robot comes to the rescue no matter how difficult it is for its blimp-like body to maneuver in close quarters. On more than one occasion, Disney’s animators turn its tight squeezes into bottomless barrels of laughs. Scott Adsit gives the character an inspired airy voice, responding to Hiro’s fist bumps with fey, endearing trills like “Bata-lata-la.” Doggedness is key to Baymax’s appeal. Every time the robot hears an “Ow,” its torso lights up with smiley faces and scowling faces: “On a scale of one to ten,” Baymax asks, “how would you rate your pain?” The comedy and drama stem from Hiro’s attempts to whip Baymax into fighting trim and transform the nurse into a warrior. The initial suit of armor makes the robot look like a sumo wrestler; the final suit is like a winged version of Iron Man’s. Baymax proves to be game for anything that improves Hiro’s physical and mental health. But that does not include the revenge killing of a human being. (It’s out of the question for Hiro’s flesh-and-blood friends, too: “This is not what I signed up for,” says GoGo.) The movie nimbly plays with pop preconceptions—whether about mortal crime and punishment or the relative morality of grey-haired academics and ruthless businessmen.
It’s a funny idea for Fred to analyze the action according to his favorite comic books. Too bad the film doesn’t follow through on this ironic spin. The last half-hour feels cramped and rushed. The screen is set for Hiro’s other buddies to turn their weaknesses into strengths—for Wasabi’s OCD or Honey Lemon’s Pollyanna outlook to serve some battlefield function. Instead, Hiro simply urges them to use their brains and see things “from a different angle” (which his brother taught him).
Happily, as filmmakers, Hall and Williams do see things from different angles. They envision a teleportation device as a kaleidoscope of fractals—the film's Day-Glo-to-gunmetal spectrum breaks up into turbulent blasts of colors. They exploit all the elements of film to deliver thrills and laughs, whether with the punk’s-eye view of the opening bot fights or the witty displays of what Baymax sees in diagnostic mode—the wiliest demonstration of technovision since The Terminator. They revel in the way their Dr. Noh of a villain wreaks havoc on visual perspectives as the microbots swarm beneath him. He’s like a futuristic Ichabod Crane and Headless Horseman rolled into one. In Baymax they create a robot like no other, achieving a comic precision that’s uncanny—a mechanical incarnation that hums with live-wire vitality.