Sunday, November 30, 2014

Big Hero 6


Lately, Disney has achieved a level of brand synergy that feels almost supernatural.  Its star houses are fully aligned: the Pixar world's emotional resonance has rubbed off on the Disney in-house animation studios, Marvel has built a type of cross-generational magic, and that Star Wars trailer? It is on point, my friend.  Disney can do no wrong (Planes: Fire and Rescue excepted), and as they tear through this winning streak they're doing so with an emphasis on heart and raw entertainment that's damn near unprecedented.  No string of companies can make you cry as much as you laugh quite like them, and if one proves it can it's certainly not likely to repeat the formula successfully a second, third, and fourth time in as many releases.  All that is to say: Big Hero 6 is good. So good. Squee-inducing good.  It's everything one could wish for from a family film; a feel-right movie that pulls off its hat trick without sacrificing the action and humor that has made so many of the recent Marvel franchises critical darlings.

Though Big Hero 6 pulls its title from the ragtag team of resourceful students who rally together by the film's conclusion, the film's focus is on a boy genius named Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter).  Hiro is a prodigy trapped in a netherworld of adolescence.  He graduated from high school at an age most are entrenched in middle school and instead of moving forward in his education opted to waste his powers on low-rent money making schemes.  When his big brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) drags him to visit his college robotics lab, Hiro finds himself with a new ambition.  He pulls his act together only to find his bright future in shambles when Tadashi is killed in what appears to be a freak accident.

There's an emotional weight to this kind of loss that Disney specializes in, and Big Hero is especially adept at capturing the psychological toll Tadashi's death takes on his family.  As Hiro begins to wall himself away in his bedroom, he accidentally activates his brother's invention: Baymax, a "healthcare companion" robot designed to diagnose and provide assistance to those in need.  When activated, Baymax begins to attend to Hiro's despondency as a medical crisis, he recognizes something as in need of repair and begins to attempt to fix it using programmed grief counseling measures. Baymax reaches out to Tadashi's labmates and begins to organize efforts he computes as likely to raise Hiro's serotonin levels.  As I understand it, Baymax is perhaps the biggest change from the original (largely unknown) Marvel comic.  Where the original was a more formidable bodyguard figure, Baymax is a squishy white balloon of benevolence.  He's endearing. Clinical, sure, but a sort of warm C-3PO ready to hand you a lollipop at a moment's notice.
Though Baymax itself is harmless, Hiro understands that he has a programmable robot at his disposal and begins to develop ways to enhance Baymax into his protector and soldier.  Soon enough, they're out to figure out what caused Tadashi's death and seeking revenge.  With the labmates and Baymax at his side, Hiro sees a way to seek justice, uncover truths, and try to raise his spirits.

Of course, there's a lesson to be learned there.  Or, many lessons (as in so many other animated family movies) and Big Hero 6 manages to dole them out without feeling patronizing.  Though at a base level, there's something to the film's shiny, explodey, brightly colored surface that made me react with childlike glee at nearly every little turn, it works to earn that kind of enthusiasm.  If you subscribe to the idea that the last decade or so of Disney animated features is a series of correctives for past "sins", Big Hero is a step bound to make a lot of people very happy.  Its cast of characters is a mixed group of ages and backgrounds who manage to actually look like their audience and not some sort of, well, ice princess ideal.  There are unconventional families formed from peer groups, strong bonds of friendship, a disinterest in love stories, smart, capable female superheroes, and a real interest in what motivates or crushes people as they pass through life.  Though there are moments of a sort of Hannah Montana-style cheesiness in some of the "friendship" montages that trend toward cheesy, but these are also the things that keep the film light.
And it is, ultimately, an effervescent piece of work. The Disney DNA wins out over the Marvel work, though the action sequences pop and ready the film for a comic resurgence. This is the first animated crossover between the entertainment giants, and while it's clearly a carefully calibrated work, it comes across as a labor of love.  Baymax is the breakout star here, and a figure bound to be immortalized in toy form and adored.  It's hard to deny that he (it?) deserves it, and with our friendly robot as an in, Big Hero 6 feels impossible not to love.  The movie itself is exactly the type of salve that Baymax offers as a health companion: he has diagnosed a lack and comes at us with his puffy arms outstretched for a hug.  It feels comforting. Good. Right. The type of thing capable of solving a problem without a name.  We'll be lucky if it sticks.  

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