Big_Hero_6_posterBy Kyle G. King. Somewhere between sequences of sexual tension, gratuitous violence, and the shirtless Hugh Jackmans that populate the genre, superhero movies have become a category peddled to a plus-thirteen demographic. Perhaps that’s why it’s not common knowledge that the family friendly hero-pic Big Hero 6 actually marks Disney’s first foray into the  Marvel universe. It’s an ingenious and potentially highly lucrative move for Disney: utilize Marvel’s rich archive of obscure stories and characters by polishing, fluffing, and appropriately hamming up the comic book source material for Disney’s distinct brand. That’s exactly what Disney CEO Bob Iger pushed his team to do in 2009 (when Disney acquired Marvel’s toy and movie rights), and that’s what they near perfectly execute with Big Hero 6.

Directed by Don Hall (Meet the Robinsons) and Chris Williams (Bolt), Big Hero 6 drops us into the not-so distant future of San Fransokyo, a fictional metropolis that blends the architectural Bay Area charm with a captivating high-tech ambiance of Japan’s capital city (think a fluffier Blade Runner’s Los Angeles but with far less rain and gloom). Elaborate exaggerated landscapes with Painted Ladies and pagoda roofs provide an engaging (if not slightly appropriated) backdrop for the film’s sharp-witted shenanigans. Disney Animation Studios created and utilized new technologies to ensure the city was a character all its own, and as the characters spend quite a bit of time romping around their streets and skies it proves to be time (and money) well spent.

The film begins with 14 year-old tech prodigy Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) hustling a breed of scoundrels and miscreants in an underground bot-fighting scheme. With a deceptively simple looking remote robot of his own construction, Hiro smartly yet unexpectedly dominates his older, muscular competition. It’s a quick and effective method for setting both the film’s less than fairy-tale tone and winning you over with the film’s young hero. This life of well-paying crime is all the young man imagines for himself and his scientific potential; that is until older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) tricks Hiro into visiting his school in an attempt to convince him to enroll. Here, Hiro meets like-minded (yet far less respectfully named) tech comrades Go Go Tamago (Jamie Chung), Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), and Fred (T.J. Miller). Their studious passions and the schools seemingly boundless budget leaves Hiro starry-eyed and inclined to abandon his criminal exploits for a life of higher education.

BIG HERO 6Hiro’s impressive science fair project involving mind controlled micro-bots dazzles the school’s Dean, Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell), and Hiro’s newly-realized dream of attending San Fransokyo’s Institute of Technology has already come true. But tragedy strikes soon after and leaves the young protagonist to cope with the tremendously profound issues for a 14 year-old to ponder. In his confused lamentation, Hiro shuts himself off from his Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph) and secludes himself to his room. (It’s an age-old Disney tradition for the movie’s young leads to be ‘orphaned’ without conventional parents, who must then learn how to fend for themselves in a cold world.) Hiro is aided by the film’s co-star and mascot, Baymax (Scott Adsit): the towering robot operates as a stand-in for an attentive parental figure for Hiro, which is fitting for Tadashi’s healthcare-robot, who auto-boots and inflates whenever he hears the word “ow”. Baymax has a soft inflatable body that is ideal for nursing and hugging and a voice that resonates as a more pleasant HAL 9000 without the malicious intonation.

In a crusade of curiosity, the pair wander into an abandoned warehouse and discover a mysterious Kabuki-masked figure, who seems to have stolen Hiro’s micro-bot technology and mass produced them for a less than honorable agenda. During this sequence Baymax’s robust body design serves classic slapstick comedy in a way that should have adults as tickled as their kids, but leaves Hiro unimpressed. Being the tech savvy teenager he is, Hiro upgrades Baymax’s armor and programming for a more aggressive intent, while Tadashi’s tech comrades help Hiro to uncover how exactly the mysterious masked figure got involved with Hiro’s micro-bots. The science gang all get their own respective tech makeovers and the ragtag team of warriors dish out their unique (albeit clumsy) form of justice to well-orchestrated action sequences that pay respect its Marvel origins. (It’s worth mentioning the film stylishly avoids guns, blood, or gore, and favorably honors both boy and girl heroes with character designs begging for a holiday toy line.)

BIG HERO 6The movie’s climax is where it falls flat. The lack of a presence for real parental figures hamstrings Big Hero 6, as the phoned-in ending attempts to pull on heartstrings with characters to which we are otherwise disconnected. Sentiment that was well-built is ultimately sacrificed for supportive character development that is clearly meant to sell toys and not support the movie’s emotional narrative in helping Hiro cope with loss. It’s a staggering step backwards for the same creative teams responsible for recent heartfelt Disney titles like 2012’s Wreck-It-Ralph and last year’s Frozen. It’s easy to blame this misstep on the umbrella excuse of this being “a movie made for children,” but Disney has proven that the genre can please adults and children alike, so it’s a defense that holds no water.

Big Hero 6 is worthy of valid praise for offering a story that favors brains over brawn, as well as serving well-balanced scenes of comedy and family-friendly action. It’s the lack of narrative support that prevents the film from resonating as deeply as Disney animated classics like The Incredibles or WALL-E. Without a doubt, it’s Baymax that steals the show and easily cements himself as a marketable character of front-page Disney folklore. Disney-Marvel has roughly two dozen titles slated within the next six years. With Big Hero 6 topping this weeks box office (over Christopher Nolan’s space epic Interstellar) a sequel is extremely likely, but Disney needs to put their best foot forward without leaning on old tropes in order to muster the heartfelt animated feature we all know it’s capable of.