A group of misfits band together to stop an evil, mysterious villain and become an unlikely team of superheroes. No, that wasn’t a one-sentence description for this summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy; it’s a one-sentence description for this fall’s Big Hero 6. Big Hero 6 focuses on child prodigy Hiro (Ryan Potter), who is encouraged to use his talents for good by his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney). To gain admittance to Tadashi’s university, Hiro creates telepathically controlled “microbots,” but when Tadashi tragically dies in a fire and Hiro finds that a mysterious villain is repurposing his invention for nefarious ends, he must team up with one of his brother’s robotic creations, recruiting an assortment of similarly “nerdy” sidekicks along the way.
Big Hero 6, directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams, is the first (and, presumably, not the last) collaboration between Disney Animation and Marvel Comics. As you might expect from such a description, it doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel – in fact, it’s a hodge-podge of familiar elements. From Disney’s end, we have a wide-eyed young protagonist with a tragic past and an anthropomorphic non-human sidekick; from Marvel’s, robotic battle armor for said anthropomorphic sidekick, city-destroying battles, and a team of misfits, each with a distinct superpower. There are precious few original or inspired ideas to be found here, but Big Hero 6 turns out to be a reasonably successful fusion of the two brands. It is a product, make no mistake, but at least it’s a competently constructed one, which manages to avoid some of the pitfalls that plague some of Disney/Marvel’s recent offerings.
The Disney/Marvel factory’s machinelike competency extends as far as you’d expect: the film is nicely animated, with some neat designs (the film takes place in a fictional mash-up of Tokyo and San Francisco dubbed “San Fransokyo”), exciting action scenes, some laughs, a bright and likable young lead, and an endearing anthropomorphic sidekick. The sidekick role is here filled by Tadashi’s creation, an inflatable robotic nurse named Baymax, who is the film’s greatest asset – and, if the presence of a plush version on my desk is any indication, a surefire marketing ploy. Thanks partly to the voice work of Scott Adsit, who invests the character with just the right mix of mechanical dispassion and genuine warmth, Baymax is, by turns, deadpan comic relief, a source of hilarious physical pratfalls (“I am not fast,” he notes serenely as he waddles away from a menacing villain), a bona fide action hero, and a tangible manifestation of the film’s themes and emotional core. He’s a much more successful version of what the studio was aiming to do with Olaf in last year’s Frozen.
Yet some of Big Hero 6’s merits are more unexpected. For one thing, it has an effective emotional core (something frequently lacking in Marvel’s live-action efforts). The film’s central relationship is handled much more effectively than the comparable sibling relationship at the heart of Frozen. For another, it values hard work, education, and intelligence – the heroes here are “nerds” who rely on their own ingenuity to save the day. Parents will appreciate a scene where Hiro exclaims ecstatically, “I have to go to college.” Others will doubtless appreciate the film’s casual ethnic diversity; a cursory survey of their animated canon reveals that Hiro is Disney’s first lead to be of mixed racial descent. The best part is that Big Hero 6 doesn’t pander to its audience: it doesn’t make a big deal about its racial diversity, it just is.
For all of Baymax’s charm, the best thing about Big Hero 6 – and the most surprising – is that it takes death seriously. Unfortunately, the importance of death has been severely diluted in recent blockbusters, particularly those of Disney and Marvel. Every Marvel movie since Thor has featured the “fake death” of a major character. Alternately, look at the first five minutes of last year’s Frozen, where two parents with less than ten speaking lines apiece were casually dispatched in a freak accident and the tragedy was summarily swept under the rug. (On the other hand, this summer’s Edge of Tomorrow is one of few blockbusters where death really means something.) With all this in mind, I was gratified to find the requisite tragedy in Big Hero 6 doesn’t come until around the 20-minute mark, after the relationship with the soon-to-be-deceased has been firmly established. When we actually know and like the character who dies, the tragedy actually carries weight.
Even better, though, is the fact that the impact of Tadashi’s death is not ignored. In fact, it hangs over the entirety of the film. This is a world where death matters, where, as Baymax says, “It is okay to cry. Crying is a natural response to pain.” Big Hero 6 is surprisingly and gratifying direct in dealing with the impact of such a loss on a young teenager. Baymax, acting as a sort of posthumous proxy for Tadashi, makes it his mission to restore Hiro’s emotional well-being in the wake of his brother’s death. As a result, the theme of grief is present for the remainder of the film’s runtime. Hiro’s grieving process becomes the central arc of Big Hero 6 – one can almost trace his progression through Kübler-Ross’ five stages.
Then, in its final reel, Big Hero 6 plays a familiar card that could be seen as a cop-out. Since the film’s release, numerous articles have circulated the internet focusing on its use (or abuse) of the “Disney Death” trope – the well-worn sequence where a beloved character dies, is mourned, and subsequently miraculously returns from the grave. There’s nothing inherently wrong with tropes, though – the real issue is whether or not the trope is executed well. In Beauty and the Beast, the Disney Death is effective and earned. In contrast, the flagrant deus ex machina at the end of Frozen is a particularly poor example. For my money, the resurrection at the end of Big Hero 6 is justified. In The Artisan Soul, Erwin Raphael McManus writes: “Beyond despair there must always be hope; beyond betrayal there must always be a story of forgiveness; beyond failure there must be a story of resilience. If the story ended at the cross, it might be a story worth telling, but that story could never give life. Only the Resurrection makes the Crucifixion what it is for all of us who are marked by the cross.” Big Hero 6 stares long and hard at the reality of death without allowing death to have the final word. Here, resurrection is not some trick that cheapens the grief that came before: it can only come about after that grief has been worked through. Hiro becomes something like Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith – like Abraham, who, paradoxically, renounced Isaac to receive Isaac. He can only overcome death after he accepts death.
For all this, though, Big Hero 6 falls short of greatness. The supporting characters are too one-note; while Hall and Williams made the right choice to focus on Hiro and Baymax, the other members are sidelined to the point that their formation as a “team” is unconvincing. Another notable flaw is the unbelievably clunky handling of the villain’s backstory (though said backstory’s thematic relevance is to be admired).
Generally speaking, although elevated above average animated films by a truly memorable character in the form of Baymax and a satisfyingly mature handling of death, Big Hero 6 is too uninspired to achieve greatness, instead choosing to aim for pleasant competence as it goes through the motions of a superhero origin story. That said, it’s still the year’s second-best animated film thus far: even if it falls short of the thematic ambition of The LEGO Movie (yes, you read that right: the thematic ambition of The LEGO Movie), it’s a vast improvement over the insufferably stagnant How To Train Your Dragon 2. It’s a shame that, as a whole, Big Hero 6 falls short of greatness, but it’d also be a shame not to acknowledge that, in some respects, it comes close.