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When Disney first acquired Marvel back in 2009, the question on everyone's mind was, What's going to be the first Marvel property they adapt for an animated film? Little did anyone suspect that the obscure late 90s comic Big Hero 6 would secure that honor, but in hindsight in makes perfect sense. There are no beloved characters to honor, no major crossover with other Marvel titles to worry about, and a basic storyline so generic, it could be easily adapted to the Disney style. Gone are the ties to Silver Samurai and Viper, no doubt due to their complicated ownership by Fox and involvement in their Marvel films, and in their place is a much more sensible version of the same story of a group of geniuses, and their merchandise-ready sidekick, who band together to save the city they live in and love.
To retain the Japanese elements of the story while also making it palatable to Westerners who just need American heroes to root for, the film is set in the fictional futuristic city of San Fransokyo. Here, a 13-year old high school graduate named Hiro (Ryan Potter) opts to use his talents to create robots and hustle people on the underground robot fighting circuit rather than do some useful with his talents. When his brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) gets wind of Hiro's money making scam, he steers him instead toward the university he attends, where he and a group of super geniuses spend all day tinkering with the latest high tech devices in an attempt to make life better.
Perhaps the smartest thing about Big Hero 6 is the way it gets all of the character introductions and motivations out of the way within the first twenty minutes, and then gives the characters some time to breathe, grow, and get to know one another better. Had this been the typical "origin story" narrative we've seen done to death a hundred times by now, the inciting incident of the film--Tadashi's death--would have likely been its climax. Thankfully screenwriters Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson, and Jordan Roberts know better than to bog their film down with such contrivances. This is not to say that the film is wholly original or marches to the beat of an entirely new drummer--Laika seems to be the only animation house doing that anymore--but it twists the conventions enough to make them feel fresh and innovative.
When history writes its post-mortem on the Disney/Marvel era, no doubt the thing that will be most apparent is Disney's inherent ability to take the elements within Marvel's oeuvre and bend them just enough to fit the Disney mold. They've done this with such regularity in their Marvel Cinematic Universe, that it's almost second nature to them at this point, and Big Hero 6 is no different. Knowing that their most successful and beloved films need a character for the kids to latch on to and talk their parents into buying shirts, toys, bed sheets, etc. emblazoned with that character's likeness, Disney wisely focused their attention on the robot Baymax as their breakout character, and he is a delight.
As voiced by 30 Rock star Scott Adsit, the robot was designed by Hiro's brother as a medical technician, one whose only function is to heal the sick. This gives the character a unique bent in that he can constantly be the outsider in any situation, looking for ways to aid those he's designed to protect, without ever formally changing his nature. It's a savvy piece of character writing, and both Adsit, the writers, and animators all combined to make a character that's a welcome change of pace and as familiar and cuddly as the characters we've loved our whole lives. It should come as no surprise that there is a direct correlation between how much you like the character of Baymax and how much you like Big Hero 6.
The story itself is serviceable, a typical whodunit where an invention designed to help others is turned against its creators to harm humanity, and enough twists to keep at least the younger minds in the audience wondering who's really behind it all. Sadly the thing that the film is least successful at achieving is breaking the mold or doing anything outside of the expected. In fact, it would come as no surprise to discover that this film, Wreck-it Ralph, and Guardians of the Galaxy were all written at the same time, because they all feature nearly identical climaxes.
The very young, under six or so, will not get much enjoyment out of Big Hero 6. In fact, it seems best designed to play to the pre-teen set, who will see in these characters people worth aspiring to. Hiro and his band of inventor friends use their unique talents and abilities to aid one another, and it will hopefully inspire in the young the sense that we should never stop trying to be at our best in everything we do. It's got humor, it's got action, and it moves like a bat out of hell, feeling infinitely shorter than its 108-minute running time would suggest, and frankly what more could you ask for?
Those of us in the audience cynical enough to have suffered crushing disappointments personally and professionally will see through all of the hopeless optimism, and study the mechanics of the film, admiring it more for what a technical marvel it is than an emotionally edifying experience. But it's those 7 to 13-year olds in the audience who will see in this film their future, and that's frankly something that more films should aspire to. Disney was incredibly savvy and forward thinking to pick Big Hero 6 for their first Marvel animated effort, and no doubt this film will be cherished by that pre-teen demographic for years to come. At their best, films and comics should make the viewer or reader aspire to something greater than themselves, and never has that message been more apparent than it is here.
**Also, as any good Marvel fan should know by this point in time, make sure you stay all the way through the end credits for a terrific little surprise.
GO Rating: 3.5/5
[Photos via Box Office Mojo]