Thanks to the booming popularity of The Dark Knight Trilogy and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, super hero movies have become some of the most successful mainstream movies as of late. The Avengers is the third highest grossing film of all time, Iron Man 3 is sixth, and The Dark Knight Rises sits just outside the top ten at number eleven. Likewise, studios like Pixar, Dreamworks, and Disney Animations have proven time and again to produce films that transcend the normal distinctions between what constitutes a movie that is ‘just for kids’ or ‘for adults’. (I readily admit I am biased on the concept of ‘just for kids’ because I find this inherently patronizing and dismissive). Frozen sits at number five, beating out Iron Man 3, on the list of highest grossing films and Toy Story 3 is fifteenth. So, from a business stand point, it must have made perfect sense to combine super heroes and animation. One can almost imagine executives cartoonishly salivating at the idea as dollar signs flash in their eyeballs. This is an admittedly pessimistic view on the process that allowed Big Hero 6 to be created but I feel it needed to be said. The question remains whether or not the film inherits enough of the success genes its two parents so clearly possess. It is important to note that I have not read any of the Marvel Big Hero 6 comics and therefore do not know how the movie compares to the original source material.
Before we begin I would like to say that I really enjoyed Big Hero 6. It was fun, exciting, well-acted, had good characters, made me laugh, made me tear up, look gorgeous, and you can bet I will be adding it to my collection of movies when it is released on DVD & Blu-ray in the new year. I say this before I go into my more in-depth review because I often find reviews focus on the flaws of a film to the point that, as a reader, I often take away more of the negative than the positive. That being said, I wanted to start off by stating firmly that I enjoyed this movie. If you’re a fan of animated movies, of super heroes, of good fun and action, this is a great film. With that taken care of…
Let us begin with the plot, action, and narrative of Big Hero 6. The film has all the necessary set-dressing for a superhero film. There is a mysterious super-villain with cool powers and an awesome villain outfit. There is a rag-tag team of nerds who become super-heroes and struggle to fight together. And there is a personal score to be settled between the protagonist, Hiro, and the super-villain. The plotting of the film is great. The opening act sets everything up nicely without rushing through so that the death of Hiro’s older brother, Tadashi, has had the appropriate build-up and the two characters have had time to establish a relationship. Likewise, each of the side characters gets their introduction and their particular quirks, which serve as touch stones for their personalities throughout the film. Tadashi’s death is sudden and surprisingly harsh, setting up the loss and grief struggle for Hiro nicely. As the movie becomes more action oriented, the animation shines. From Baymax’s movement to the micro-bots used by the villain, everything is beautiful animated and unique. The contrast between Baymax’s smooth, soft, bouncing animation and the cold, mechanical, twisting of the micro-bots is something I noticed in particular. The action moves fast but is crisp and clear so that you don’t feel overwhelmed or like you’re missing something, as can sometimes happen in the bigger action sequences of live-action films. What holds the action and progression of the plot together so well is the way in which it is all connected back to Hiro’s feelings of loss. Baymax keeps asking if Hiro is satisfied with his care, if Hiro has been healed of his grief, but that moment cannot come until this super-villain, a representation of his loss and grief, can be concurred. The climax of the movie is smart and action packed. The side characters do descend into an appropriately comical series of one-liners about their various attacks, but it manages to build to a satisfying end. It is admittedly simplistic but that is because the conflict with the movie’s super-villain is a physical manifestation of Hiro’s struggle, meant to emphasize and invoke the various elements of his grieving process. In this it succeeds and while some plot elements to seem to come up suddenly it was never enough to take me out of the experience. I would describe the “mysteries” of Big Hero 6 as “oh, I did not know that was a thing” as opposed to “oh, now we understand what that is”, if that makes any sense.
While the plot is enjoyable it does not hold the same kind of transcendent emotional quality that made films like Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen, both from the same studio, stand out and really resonate after the credits rolled. This is Big Hero 6’s greatest flaw in my opinion but I feel it can be traced primarily to time and side characters. Time wise it can be specifically traced to the movie’s length, which could have benefited greatly from an additional 5-15 minutes worth of content. There were two moments during the film where I expected the emotional stakes and depth of the film to evolve but those moments were glossed over or skipped through in favour of getting to some more highly anticipated scene. The wake following Tadashi’s death is one such moment. This is one of the first scenes I looked back to at the end of the movie and wished had contained something more. The scene is quick, a glimpse of Hiro’s house from the outside and a panning shot across their living room showing Tadashi and Hiro’s friends before finally showing Hiro alone at the top of the stairs. Hiro then descends into the isolation stage of his grieving process. But this would have been the perfect time to develop those side characters as well as Hiro. A few lines of dialogue between these so-called “best friends” of Tadashi about Hiro’s brother and about Hiro would have done a lot to strengthen their individual characters as well as their relationship to Hiro and, thus, Hiro himself. This opportunity was missed in favour of racing into Hiro’s first scene with Baymax. I find this especially disappointing because my favourite character in the movie is Go-Go, my favourite line being when she tells Hiro to “woman up”. Like all of the side characters, her moments are strong and enjoyable, but brief. The side characters of Big Hero 6 are just not given the same level of attention or development as side characters in other Disney animated films. The second scene that was not used to its full potential is the scene after the team has been defeated by the villain and Hiro sees the videos Baymax has of Tadashi. This felt like the perfect opportunity for the characters to experience doubts about their abilities following their inept first attempt at being heroes. This conflict between the characters and their goal would have strengthened the underappreciated side characters and further evolved the stakes of the plot. The movie, more or less, rides on a single emotional stake: that Tadashi has died and the super-villain is somehow connected to that event. The stakes never evolve past this point. The motivations of the villain are expanded upon but this does nothing to deepen the character’s resolves. As a result, the plot, action, and narrative, while good, never reaches that transcendent or emotional level of greatness I’ve come to expect from Disney movies.
Let us move on to Baymax. Baymax is an easily loveable character and the focal point of the movie. His animation is perfect, bouncy and soft, and the Robotic-Nurse-Michelin-Man is perfectly voiced by Scott Adsit. The concept of Baymax as a robot designed to heal people is easy to grasp but the real interest comes from the particular kind of pain he is trying to heal. With Hiro as his “patient”, Baymax is attempting to heal Hiro’s pain over the loss of his brother. This is not what Baymax was originally programmed to do and the resulting relationship that is built between Hiro and Baymax is the best part of the film. The one benefit to the lack of focus on the side characters is that Baymax and Hiro get plenty of on-screen time together. Baymax succeeds both as, ironically, an emotional sounding board for Hiro and as a comic relief character. Hiro’s relationship with Baymax over the course of the movie does succeed in helping Hiro deal with the loss of his brother by walking him through (some of) the five steps of loss and grieving. Firstly, Baymax is able to get Hiro out of the house and interacting with the world again, breaking the cycle of isolation he’s entered following his brother’s death. Hiro bargains with Baymax in order to gain his assistance in tracking down the movie’s super-villain as a way to deal with his “mood-swings”. Finally, Baymax helps Hiro express and come to terms with his anger. When the identity of the super-villain is revealed and Hiro orders Baymax to destroy him, to kill him, Baymax becomes a conduit for Hiro’s anger. This is easily the moment when the film is at its strongest, at least emotionally. As Baymax, an immutably caring and kind character, becomes a battle robot responding to Hiro’s commands he becomes a frightening force. He is no longer bouncing. Instead he becomes a force of destruction. And the more destructive Baymax becomes in his attempts to satisfy Hiro’s anger the more sound filters out of the movie. It is a powerful moment made all the more powerful because it is against the very nature of the character we have come to know. The side of comic relief is best left to be seen and not analyzed. What I will say is that the scenes in which Baymax’s batteries require charging are the best and contain content that can easily be lost on children but will resonate clearly with the ‘adult’ audience. In the end, Baymax is an excellent character to pair up with the grief stricken Hiro and is the most memorable character of the movie.
While Baymax is single-minded in his attempts to give care, I couldn’t help but feel that the movie largely glossed over information Baymax should have had about dealing with grief in favour of allowing Hiro to act in ways that would further the super hero plotline. At first, Baymax does not even understand what kind of pain Hiro is experiencing since he cannot locate any injuries. When Hiro tells him the pain “[isn’t] that kind of pain”, Baymax downloads, as far as we can tell, the entirety of information contained within this alternate universe’s internet related to emotional care and ways to deal with grief. Faced no doubt with thousands of documents and accounts from health-care professionals responsible for grief counselling, as well as countless other average internet users providing their own stories, it is not impossible that Baymax may have become confused as to exactly what is the right way to care for Hiro. But Baymax quickly throws aside all of this information and instead listens to a fourteen-year-old boy when he says that the only way to help him become better is to form a team of super heroes and fight a super villain. Baymax allows his patient to make a diagnosis and proscribe a cure. While Hiro does eventually undergo a kind of grieving process that culminates in accepting his brother’s death, the film forgoes any truly deep conversation about loss, grief, or discussion about the realities and permanence of death in favour of blockbuster actions sequences, explosions, and super hero costumes. All of the aforementioned super-hero movie content is great but the movie fails to recognize the emotional heart of its story lies in a kid trying to come to terms with the loss of his brother. The grieving process that Hiro undergoes isn’t bad. Denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance are all present in Hiro’s journey. Anger in particular makes itself well known, as I mentioned before. It’s just not the kind of deeper confrontation with grief that I was expecting from the story or the studio. The problem can perhaps be attributed to the movies reach exceeding its grasp. Perhaps a film ‘for kids’ which attempts to deal with loss and grief wasn’t the movie the creators were ready to make. Regardless, this stands as a flaw in the movie, presented most obviously through Baymax’s actions.
My final verdict is that the super hero element of the movie serves as a cool way of dealing with the movies subject matter but don’t go in expecting any kind of mind-boggling story arc. The villain is a fantastic cliché but not much more than that. The super-hero action is cool and unique, making for great animated action, but the emotional stakes aren’t as high as they could be with the side characters all being underdeveloped. The truth is that this is the story of Hiro’s grief and his relationship to Baymax. It never gets as emotional as a movie like Iron Giant and it never gets as intense as something like The Avengers, but it also doesn’t disappoint either. Big Hero 6 won’t be a great super hero film or a great animated film but it is a good film with an excellent pair of characters in Hiro and Baymax, a good if simplified struggle for Hiro, and plenty of action sequences in between.
Verdict: 7.5 / 10