Big Hero 6 is afor-real superhero movie - so real its climax takes place at a portal in the sky and it features a totally bullshit cameo by Stan Lee. But it isn’t the superhero stuff that works best in Big Hero 6, and in many ways it’s the superhero stuff that gets in the way of Big Hero 6 achieving true greatness.
Hiro Hamada is a robotics genius who is wasting his time on back alley bot fights until his older brother convinces him to try out for San Fransokyo’s premiere robotics school. But on the night that Hiro presents his greatest achievement - swarming, mind-controlled microbots - a fire destroys the exhibition hall and kills Hiro’s brother.
Deep in mourning, Hiro accidentally activates Baymax, his brother’s robotics project, a big and fluffy nursing bot. He also discovers that his nanobots weren’t destroyed in the fire, and that whoever has them probably set that fire on purpose. Baymax, believing that hunting down the killer will help Hiro’s emotional state, assists him in recruiting four robotics students into a fledgling superteam.
All of the stuff before ‘fledgling superteam’ in Big Hero 6 is great. Everything after it is pretty good, and the divide is stark. The relationship between Baymax and Hiro is wonderful and moving, and the heightened scifi world of San Fransokyo is a delight. I especially love the movie's relentlessly pro-science agenda; this is a film where the characters are excited about learning and innovating, and where the tech isn't bad, it's just sometimes used wrong. The other students even feel more alive and real before they don their supersuits and get into the action. Everything that happens once the superheroics kicks in is good, and the team’s arc of learning to work together and finding compassion for the villain is very nice, but none of it sparks the way the first half does.
A lot of that is Baymax, second only to Groot as the lovable character of the year (it’s interesting to note that both are technically ungendered, despite having male voice talent behind them). In the first half Baymax is a marshmallowy white bot, and he’s adorable and huggable and so much fun. In the second half he’s armored up, and he looks cool, but it just isn’t the same. Yes, the action Baymax would make a great toy, but the nursing Baymax makes for a great character. I spent the second half of the movie just wishing Baymax would lose the armor.
Hiro is a strong protagonist (with a name like that he needs to be) because he has such a drastic arc dealing with grief, rage and bringing him, eventually, to understanding. I wish the other characters - who are all excellently designed, and who each have intriguing super powers - were given the same amount of room. Gogo, the speed demon of the group, has a battle cry of “Woman up!,” which is awesome. Where’s more Gogo? Honeylemon is a culturally sensitive chemist, but what’s the rest of her story? The Big Hero characters are so well designed and acted that I itched for more of them, and they all - except for Fred, the comic relief character - felt very underserved.
In some ways I want Big Hero 6 to be a movie it isn’t - I like these characters and their world and I would like spend time with them. The finished film isn’t short on character - others might think it takes too long to get to the superheroics - but for me the superhero business ends up being easily the least interesting thing in the whole movie.
At the heart of Big Hero 6 are a lot of complicated emotions, and they’re all tied into a duo - Hiro and Baymax - who are in the best tradition of Elliot and ET and Hogarth and the Iron Giant. I don’t make that comparison lightly, and I think Big Hero 6’s directors Don Hall and Chris Williams (with screenwriters Dan Gerson and Robert L Baird) have created characters who deserve to be in that company. Which, in many ways, is why I wanted more of them being them, and being with their friends.
The superhero action is great, and the flying sequences are beautiful. There’s all kinds of next generation animation stuff happening in Big Hero 6, but at this point the whiz bang aspects pale in comparison to the most difficult part of the process: creating characters the audience loves. The audience will love these characters.