Big Hero 6: A Child-Sized Step Forward

There’s an inherent fairy-tale quality to animated films. They build worlds that are similar to our own, but a step removed. Physical traits appear exaggerated, colors shine with distinctive brightness, and characters challenge and stretch bounds of reality. Perhaps this is why the medium is so often used to tell children’s stories: animated movies create a unique world where anything is possible. But these worlds have a familiar quality, allowing simple moral tales to be exciting while also passing on a message. In this regard, Big Hero 6 succeeds admirably, telling a contemporary and progressive moral story in a vibrant, breathing world. It does not reinvent the formula of the animated children’s feature, but it’s a solid addition to the library.

Set in the fictional San Fransokyo—a futuristic city where the aesthetics of the east and west coasts of the Pacific blend seamlessly—Big Hero 6 tells the story of Hiro Hamada, a child prodigy whose groundbreaking invention, tiny robots called microbots, earns him a spot at a prestigious tech college. After his brother, Tadashi, is killed in an accident and the microbots are stolen, Hiro forms a bond with Baymax, a balloon-like robot (think the Michelin Man crossed with the Pillsbury Doughboy) that Tadashi built to be a healthcare assistant. So begins a quest for answers, revenge, and a dash of saving the world, as Hiro teams up with other students from the college to soup up Baymax and track down the microbots. Along the way there are training montages (complete with “Eye of the Tiger”), moral dilemmas, and lessons learned through friends and families. It’s a familiar story, but it’s got enough fresh bells and whistles to make it worth watching.

The most noticeable thing that sets Big Hero 6 apart from its peers is how it looks. The film is simply stunning to watch across all areas of the animation spectrum, with detailed, bright scenery and gorgeous lighting. The characters are all drawn with a dash of comedy, from Honey Lemon’s ridiculous gangly legs to Wasabi’s enormously broad shoulders to Baymax’s bulbous form. And when everything gets put in motion, it looks even better. The characters walk with bursting individuality; their physicality communicates even more about their personalities than their dialogue. The cinematography amplifies everything as it is brought to life, proving that camera work is still important even if those cameras exist solely in computer programs. In one car chase, the camera tracks rapidly down a hill while a car races up it, creating a compounded feeling of speed and danger that invigorates the action. Simply put, Big Hero 6 offers some of the best 3D animation in the business.

Looking past the vibrant colors and elegant animations, there’s something else that feels unique about Big Hero 6: its diversity. Our lead character is half-Asian and is raised by his hard-working single aunt. Hiro’s friends and teammates are men and women, black and Latina, dopey and serious. The minority characters aren’t clichéd stereotypes, and women aren’t added in just to be love interests for male heroes. The movie fits its diverse cast of characters in seamlessly, none of it feeling overly politically correct but just seeming honest: real people are diverse. The value of this inclusivity in a movie made for young children (and targeted to boys in particular) cannot be overstated, and it really does make the movie better.

The ultimate shortcoming of Big Hero 6 is that it really is a kid’s movie. The first act relies heavily on exposition, spelling out the who’s and what’s of the story. The third act, by contrast, is crammed a bit too full with action, which might give the target audience of boys something to be excited about, but runs on too long to be really thrilling. There’s a strong sense of who this movie is targeting, and it plays too specifically to that audience, which limits how effective it can be in its own right.

Getting into the more traditional side of the film, animated kids movies always have an ample dose of humor, and it’s here that Big Hero 6 feels, if not weak, at least a little too standard. Jokes are pretty overt, without the subtlety that often offers parents comedic relief while watching movies with their children. Kids will probably get a kick out of school-mascot Fred (voiced by T.J. Miller, one of few recognizable voices) who plays the role of the classic slapstick moron, but mostly it’s just too hammed up to be genuinely funny. The visuals carry the humor well, but most of the actual comedic dialogue is forgettable. The saving grace is Baymax, voiced impressively by Scott Adsit (30 Rock). His robotic monotone is nonetheless bursting with character, and his struggle to understand and help humans offers some of the film’s best moments. If you leave the theater quoting anything, it’ll be Baymax’s lighthearted “bla-la-la-la-la” as he tries to recreate Hiro’s fist-bump/explosion handshake.

In considering how it speaks to the young boys that surely would flock to an animated super hero movie, another round of praise must be given for the messages that Big Hero 6 offers. It’s a movie about growing up, about taking pride in intelligence, about working with friends and family, about dealing with loss. The importance that the film places on diversity, science, and compassion is truly reassuring for a movie targeted at children. It’s too bad the movie couldn’t do more to push the genre forward, but it’s at least taking a tentative step in that direction. If you’re looking for a movie that your children will enjoy, it’s hard to find one with a better message than Big Hero 6.

Grade: B+/A-            A beautiful and effective kid’s movie