Smarties Unite: "Big Hero 6" a funny, sneakily affecting surprise

Big Hero 6 (2014)
93 min., rated PG.

With Disney buying Marvel and slating a slew of superhero movies now until 2020, one tends to worry when the fatigue will start to set in. Luckily, Walt Disney's computer-animated films have been able to mostly live up to Pixar's special output in recent years with 2007's vastly underrated "Meet the Robinsons," 2010's "Tangled," 2012's "Wreck-It Ralph," and 2013's "Frozen," and their latest offering is an accomplished treat to their library that could almost rival Pixar's "The Incredibles." Directed by Don Hall (2011's "Winnie the Pooh") and Chris Williams (2008's "Bolt"), and written by Robert L. Baird & Daniel Gerson (2013's "Monsters University") and Jordan Roberts, "Big Hero 6" is hilarious, exciting, and sneakily and deeply affecting. The film is inventive in its details, knowing in its sense of humor that this is an origin story, and fleet in its pacing, but more importantly (and most surprisingly), it has an unmistakable human element that actually resonates. To be cliché but truthful, "Big Hero 6" has a little bit of everything for everyone. That's entertainment, folks.

Losing his parents when he was only three and graduating high school at thirteen, 14-year-old Hiro Hamada (voice of Ryan Potter) is too busy participating in underground bot-fighting to take advantage of his real potential. It takes some convincing by older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) when given a tour of San Fransokyo Tech, a "nerd school" where Tadashi attends with his pals, including GoGo (Jamie Chung), Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), and Fred (T.J. Miller), and makes new inventions that could help mankind some day. Unfortunately, once Hiro makes an amazing, mind-controlled micro-bot for his admission project into the program run by professor Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell), an explosion strikes the building and tragically takes the lives of Tadashi and Professor Callaghan. A devastated Hiro isn't the same, living in his bedroom above the cafe his Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph) runs, until Tadashi's creation is inflated. Baymax (Scott Adsit) is a blobby health-care robot imbued with a kindness for others and the ability to scan anyone's vital stats. Soon, Hiro discovers the rest of his micro-bots have survived the explosion and are being used for a big, nefarious plan by a bad guy in a kabuki mask. Hiro then gives Baymax an upgrade, complete with karate skills and metal armor to don, and assembles the late Tadashi's friends into a team of smarts and unique abilities to take revenge on the baddie.

In introducing so many characters, "Big Hero 6" could feel overstuffed, but it pops with energy and quickly whips into focus as a story about Hiro's self-discovery, whilst never losing sight of his relationship with his older brother and the heartbreak that is palpably felt in his coping with loss once Tadashi is gone. The tragedy that occurs and the serious maturity in which it is handled gives the film a moving emotional core. Colorfully and gloriously animated by the best of Disney's standards, the film makes for cultural diversity in the story's setting of San Fransokyo (an East-West mash-up of, you guessed it, San Francisco and Tokyo), with trolleys and hilly streets and the twinned-city sights of Japan's metropolitan capital. An opening crane shot over what appears to be the Golden Gate Bridge is so photorealistically animated that it could be live-action.

Hiro (Ryan Potter, by proxy) is the heart and soul of the film. He may be young, but he's wise beyond his years. It's a surprise the writers don't tack on a girl for him to crush on and save; robotics is his main love and his brotherly relationship with Tadashi is what gives the film its beating heart. The main attraction is the delightful creation of Baymax, a "walking marshallow." Voiced by Scott Adsit (TV's "30 Rock"), the inflatable medical helper owns up to his "non-threatening, huggable design" in terms of warmth and unassuming humor. The way the filmmakers find physical humor in this character is so inspired and just adorably lovable, whether he comes off like a stumbling drunk when his battery runs low, or when he makes a fist bump, or when he asks Hiro to describe his pain "on a scale of 1 to 10." It's also hard not to get a kick out of the lumbering, big-bellied Baymax scooting by a tight space, sliding one foot over at a time, and knocking over the contents of a book shelf. The rest of the "6" are relegated to sidekick status, but they have personalities, namely T.J. Miller's Fred who seems to be a slacker hanging with geniuses but really lives the high life in a mansion with a butler. Jamie Chung, as spunky, gum-popping racer GoGo; Damon Wayans, Jr., as neurotic laser specialist Wasabi; and Genesis Rodriguez, as sweet, super-smart chemist Honey Lemon, are all likable and engaging nevertheless. Maya Rudolph is also an irresistible bundle of energy as the over-caffeinated Aunt Cass, who works hard to run a cafe and loves her nephews as if they were her own sons.

"Big Hero 6" might be an origin story for our six superheroes, but for the most part dodges too many familiar tropes and quickly montages through their scientifically created "powers" in a brisk clip. The unmasking of the sinister villain is right out of Scooby-Doo, and while the film does fall into a more standard mode in its final act, that doesn't make it any less lively or entertaining. It feels like a great achievement when an animated film can better the large-scale action set-pieces of most live-action features and comes close to matching the humanity of them as well. And, if the feature presentation doesn't get one a little misty-eyed in a couple spots, there is the sweetly charming short, titled "Feast," about a Boston Terrier and the progression of human food he's served by his master. "Big Hero 6" not only has what it takes to be a witty, vibrant, lump-in-your-throat entertainment enjoyed by kids and parents alike, but the fact that it has a heart as big as Baymax makes it that much more special.

Grade: B +