While the rest of the movie-loving universe still concerns themselves with analyzing the recent Marvel Films event that mapped out the next five years of superhero movies, the company is (sort of) quietly releasing an amazing addition to their film universe this week. Because what you might not know is the story of Big Hero 6 originated from a manga-inspired comic series that had a short-lived run in 1998 and then in 2008. And even if you did see the source material, you’d quickly notice that it has been wildly overhauled to fit in with the aesthetic of Marvel’s parent company, Disney.
The translation, though, is a fantastic one. The edges of the comic series may have been softened and rendered more family-friendly, but directors Don Hall and Chris Williams have found that perfect combination of heartwarming and thrilling that made films like The Incredibles and Wreck-It Ralph such great additions to the Disney film library. Where the directors and screenwriters Jordan Roberts, Robert L. Baird, and Dan Gerson do toe the Marvel line is by making this a superhero origin story. And it’s one that, like Iron Man, celebrates technology, smarts, and innovation over mutations and gene-splicing.
The hero in question is Hiro, a young genius who graduated high school at age 13 and is now spending his evening hustling grown-ups in illegal robot fights. Looked after by his older brother Tadashi and their aunt Cass in the bustling mega-metropolis San Fransokyo, Hiro is encouraged to use his smarts to join his sibling at the Institute of Technology. To do so, the young prodigy has to come up with a project so dazzling that he’ll be allowed admission into the school. He finds it in the creation of millions of little nanobots that can combine to make any shape or perform any task possible at the whim of whoever is controlling them. It’s a short-lived success, as a fire in the main hall kills Tadashi and sends Hiro reeling.
What brings him out of his shell again is Baymax, a bulbous, huggable robot built for diagnosing and treating medical conditions, from things as minor as skin irritation to something as big as a heart attack. He’s a marshmallow, a sweet-natured galoot in the mold of the Iron Giant or the sentient spaceship of Flight of the Navigator, who follows his programming with a child-like simplicity. Add to it a warm, engaging monotone provided by Scott Adsit (best known as Pete on 30 Rock), and he could be the son of Siri.
The two stumble upon the discovery that Hiro’s nanobots weren’t destroyed in the fire, and are, in fact, being mass-produced and controlled by a sinister-looking man in a kabuki mask. The only solution is to try and take the supervillain on with the help of Tadashi’s classmates, a mutli-culti group of young geniuses who adapt their various robotics projects as nascent superpowers. Here again, Big Hero 6 stays in line with Marvel heroes like Spider-Man and Iron Man who go through a lot of trial and error and a few dangerous situations to finally come out in control of their newfound powers. And, yes, this film simplifies that message in a big way (likely for the sake of younger viewers).
The message, though, is still one that even us grownups can appreciate. The computers and handheld gadgets that you are likely using to read this on went through a lot of testing and re-testing, and then testing some more, to work out the kinks and bugs and massive errors. It’s almost a parallel to the process of computer animation — painstaking, exacting work that can produce visual magic. To that end, the animators for Disney have done some amazing work here. The moving mass of nanobots is chilling and beautiful to witness, and the scenes of Hiro and Baymax soaring over the city (after the robot is fitted with sleek, rocket-propelled armor) are a complete thrill. They even dabble in a little neo-psychedelia during the film’s last reel. Even if the story itself leaves you cold, there’s plenty onscreen to fill your eyes with wonder.