“Big Hero 6” is clever, big-hearted and lovely to look at – things we have come to expect from its maker, Walt Disney Animation Studios (“Frozen,” “Wreck-It-Ralph”), in recent years.
That is, until a comic-book movie breaks out.
About three-quarters in, “Hero” goes from a tale of smarts, ingenuity and family to a same ol’-same ol’ comic-book origin story. Captivating depictions of technological know-how give way to tired superhero-skill-honing montages and a masked, technology-mad supervillain.
This turn does not shock, because the film was inspired by an obscure Marvel comic. But it does startle, because the movie’s tone changes so markedly after robotics phenom Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter), his fellow young tech whizzes and a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man-looking robot (Scott Adsit) join to become guardians of the gadgetry.
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Until then, the movie had engaged fully via its rich depiction of Hiro, his (also-gifted) robotics-student older brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney), and their adventures in San Fransokyo, a hybrid of San Francisco and Tokyo. Those adventures include Hiro’s participation in a back-alley “bot fighting” ring and Tadashi’s invention of Baymax, an inflatable “health companion” robot. Baymax is the source of flatulence-sound humor that’s sure to please discriminating 5-year-olds.
There are so many things going for “Big Hero 6,” before its let’s-get-the-gang-together comics moment, that the moment plays as an afterthought. But what precedes it – the thought part – is good enough to see the movie through.
Most delicious is a sequence in which Hiro, already a high school graduate at age 14, hustles adult bot fighters, a.k.a. suckers. The youngster acts like a neophyte, then takes down competitors with a small bot that looks simple but isn’t.
Hiro scores wads of cash, but Tadashi does not approve, because he knows his brother is meant for better things. He encourages Hiro to enter a tech competition that could help win him a spot at the tech-and-science university Tadashi attends.
“Hero” is set in the San Fransokyo of the near future, which looks like the techie Bay Area of today, but with lanterns on cable cars and Japanese arches added to Victorians. The university and its well-kept grounds suggest the studied casualness of the Google campus.
The place looks gorgeous in a way that’s everyday San Francisco yet also enhanced, by the vivid blues, oranges and pinks directors Don Hall and Chris Williams lend to daytime scenes.
When Hiro, at the tech competition, shows off a “microbot” system in which he controls a network of tiny bots with his brain, “Hero” plays as a slightly futuristic version of HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” Enhancing the “Valley” effect is T.J. Miller, who plays entrepreneur Erlich on the show and here lends his hang-loose voice to a robotics-program hanger-on who will become a member of the nerd avengers.
“Hero” also shows an appreciation for pre-tech-boom San Franciscans, in the character of Hiro’s and Tadashi’s aunt Cass (a warm Maya Rudolph). The orphaned Hiro and Tadashi live with their aunt in the slightly scruffy but cozy flat atop the coffee shop she owns.
Cass’ youth keeps her blue-collar similarities to Peter Parker’s Aunt May to a dull roar. Yet they are there when Cass encourages a despondent Hiro, after a tragic event, to pursue his studies. (That event, which presages the film’s darker, comic-book turn, also might sadden young audience members).
Voice actor Potter, still a teenager himself, lends Hiro an authentic youthfulness and likability. But Tadashi and Baymax are the standout characters.
Henney and the film’s creative team give Tadashi, who is the world’s best big brother, a good-natured self-assurance. Rather than just chastise Hiro about his criminal activities, he lovingly redirects him toward the right path. That Tadashi uses his substantial brain power to create a robot that helps others says a lot about his compassion levels.
Tadashi designed Baymax as a “health companion” who can scan people for elevated heart rate or injury, and offer care and suggestions. The very best thing about Baymax (and this movie) is that it stays consistently a robot no matter how much Hiro modifies it with armor or new physical powers when he makes it part of his comic-book crew.
Adsit retains the same comforting (Tadashi designed Baymax to be nurturing) yet robotic tone throughout, and Baymax continually reminds humans of its limits and purpose. This consistency is vital to the story’s integrity, and offers an important lesson to young audience members growing up among people who depend on electronic devices as boredom alleviators and fill-in companions.
By not anthropomorphizing Baymax, “Hero” sends the message that machines, even at their cuddliest, are no substitute for human connection.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.
BIG HERO 6
Voice cast: Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, Daniel Henney, T.J. Miller
Directors: Don Hall and Chris Williams
Rated PG (action and peril, some rude humor)