With “Big Hero 6,” an obscure Marvel Comics title gives the Mouse House’s toon division just enough raw material to assemble its own superhero franchise, starring millions of robots — including one, a balloon-bellied virtual nurse named Baymax, that you’ll never forget. Co-directors Don Hall and Chris Williams borrow the character names and a few key details from their pulp source, but otherwise succeed in putting a thoroughly Disney spin on things, delivering appealing personalities, bright, peppy animation, positive life lessons and what looks like a world record for the sheer amount of hugging featured in a superhero movie. More male-skewing than “Frozen,” the relatively hip result should do big business for Disney, especially in Asian territories, with easy expansion possibilities via additional movies, comics or a TV series.
Set in a beautifully rendered, futuristic hybrid city called San Fransokyo — which combines familiar NorCal features, like steep hills, the Golden Gate Bridge and the bay, with skyscrapers, neon signs and characteristically Japanese architectural flourishes — “Big Hero 6” synthesizes American and Asian cultural sensibilities across the board. Displaying a special love for Japanese robotics, screenwriters Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson and Jordan Roberts integrate elements of manga, anime and science fiction into the very fabric of the computer-animated project, but also succumb to the same pitfalls faced by so many other superhero pics: Namely, after establishing its fresh and relatable origin story, the movie gets bogged down with a relatively generic villain’s power-hungry schemes.
Still, there’s enough that’s new and different about “Big Hero 6” to get excited about, especially for those still too young for Marvel’s more intense live-action fare. A couple of decades ago, Disney went out of its way to diversify its princess lineup, featuring characters such as Mulan and Pocahontas in culturally specific stories designed to reflect their unique backgrounds. “Big Hero 6” seems wonderfully color-blind by comparison, centering on a Japanese-American lead, 14-year-old Hiro Hamada (voiced with contagious enthusiasm by Ryan Potter), in a role that could have gone to a character of any race or gender.
Hiro is crazy-smart for a kid his age. An amateur inventor with a special interest in robotics, he graduated from high school at 13 and now spends his time hustling bigger mecha at underground bot-fighting competitions — a hobby that jumpstarts the high-energy story with a few “Real Steel”-style scenes early on. Older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) wishes Hiro would pick something safer to occupy his time, arranging an impromptu tour of the university science lab in hopes that the teen might be tempted to enroll.
Pay special attention to the four inventors who work alongside Tadashi in the school lab, since they will soon join Hiro’s band of amateur crime-fighters. These misfits include cycling junkie GoGo Tamago (Jamie Chung); laser-blade innovator Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.); chemical-reactions specialist Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez); and Fred (T.J. Miller), a shaggy-haired weirdo obsessed with Godzilla and other freak-of-nature phenomena. As a group, they come across less like the Avengers than the dorky members of Scooby-Doo’s mystery-solving squad.
So who’s the sixth member of Hiro’s gang of heroes? That would be Baymax, a robotic Healthcare Companion unlike any A.I. auds have previously encountered onscreen. (As voiced by “30 Rock’s” Scott Adsit, the character serves as a walking comedy routine — a throwback to the way Paul Reubens played things in “Flight of the Navigator” a generation earlier.) In a movie that boasts no shortage of creative design elements, Baymax is by far the most compelling, inspired by a new class of “soft robotics” being developed at Carnegie Mellon U., whose mechanical endoskeletons are completely hidden by puffy, nonthreatening vinyl.
With his squeaky inflatable suit and gentle demeanor, Baymax looks like a cross between the Marshmallow Man and a giant panda. Personality-wise, the benign bot represents an extreme case of Asimov’s first law: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” In his naive, uniquely amusing way, Baymax is hyper-attentive, almost to the point of smothering, dispensing lollipops and hugs as the situation demands. But he’s also a quick study, learning as he goes, which makes the movie feel a bit like “How to Train Your Robot” for the first hour or so, complete with high-flying bonding sequences that take us throughout the elaborate, densely detailed world of San Fransokyo — in dynamic stereoscopic 3D, no less.
Before his disappearance, Tadashi programmed Baymax to look after his younger brother. Now that Hiro is all alone (except for his oblivious Aunt Cass, played for grins by Maya Rudolph), the robot serves almost as a surrogate parental figure — albeit one that can be upgraded according to its child’s whims. The pic’s most entertaining sequences feature Hiro tinkering with his new gizmo, trying to take what looks like an embarrassing baby toy and toughen him up, whether that means updating Baymax’s database to include a full library of advanced karate moves or creating custom body armor to mask his harmless appearance.
Lately, Disney has been taking turns making toons for girls (“Tangled”) and toons for boys (“Wreck-It Ralph”), and though “Big Hero 6” falls squarely in the latter camp, Baymax is such an endearing character, it shouldn’t be hard to attract auds of both sexes. Still, given the emotional sincerity of the pic’s first half, it’s a shame the filmmakers felt obliged to resort to a testosterone-fueled battle with a less-than-special villain, whose identity comes as a surprise (but maybe not enough of one). What sets this bad guy apart is the fact that his “power” is derived from one of Hiro’s own inventions: a system of micro-bots that do their master’s bidding, resulting in a hypnotic, ever-evolving force to be reckoned with, a bit like “Terminator 2’s” liquid-metal shape-shifter or the gloopy black symbiote seen in “Spider-Man 3.”
The villain, who hides his identity behind a kabuki mask, and the members of Hiro’s wisecracking team all remain recognizable human characters throughout. They’re not suddenly blessed with imaginary new powers or miraculously transformed by gamma rays, like so many other Marvel types. Instead, the film eliminates the stigma of being a “nerd,” illustrating how college-level intelligence gave them the tools to make themselves special, boasting a few useful lessons on anger management and the futility of vengeance in the process.
By now, the Disney-Marvel universe is already filled to bursting with big heroes, and it’s reasonable to ask whether the world really needs six more, especially when all but Baymax feel like kids in high-end Halloween costumes. The movie hypes this new sextet’s introduction by blasting Fall Out Boy’s anthemic “Immortals” on the soundtrack (which employs a stock rock-music score, courtesy of Henry Jackman), but hasn’t entirely convinced us by the end that we need more adventures from these characters. Couldn’t the Mouse House focus on doing that “Incredibles” sequel first?
As an amuse bouche to the talky main attraction, “Big Hero 6” will be accompanied in theaters by a virtually dialogue-free, six-minute short called “Feast.” In a fun twist, the film is told as a montage of meals, tracking a dozen years in the relationship between a Boston Terrier and his owner, as seen from the insatiably hungry dog’s perspective. Technically speaking, this is an experimental short, in its visual style and its narrative approach, and it takes a bit of time to get one’s bearings, but the emotional core is so strong that we can’t help choking up. If director Patrick Osborne can do that in six minutes with “Feast,” perhaps it’s fair to ask more of the feature that follows.