Don't be thrown by the title. Disney's "Big Hero 6" isn't the latest installment of a celebrated franchise you never heard of until now. Though judging by its ending, the filmmakers definitely have franchise-level aspirations.
"Big Hero 6" is actually a reference to the six members of a group of brand-new animated superheroes — kind of a nerdy, college-aged version of "The Incredibles," with a heavy Asian influence.
The leader and protagonist is Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter), an underachieving teenage robotics prodigy who would rather use his gift to make money competing in underground bot fights than serve humanity. His older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) is trying to be a good influence, encouraging his brother to join him at an innovative robotics research program at a nearby university. But Hiro is a teenager, and well ... you know how those things go.
One night, Tadashi finally drags Hiro over to his lab, where he introduces his brother to all of his geek friends and their respective character quirks. He also shows Hiro his latest creation: Baymax (Scott Adsit), a nurse robot enclosed in an inflatable outer shell that makes him look like the 21st century version of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
Hiro is inspired by the experience and sets out to join the robotics program by pitching an innovative invention called microbots to the program's legendary professor, Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell). Unfortunately, an accident at the lab kills Tadashi and Callaghan, and when Hiro learns that a mysterious masked villain was responsible, he teams up with his brother's classmates in order to take him on.
Strangely, the film's greatest strength — its originality — gets flipped 180 degrees by the end of the film.
Early on, "Big Hero 6" is clever and charming, with plenty of humor and creativity to keep things moving along. But once the origin story is in place — once the Big Hero 6 get together — the film defaults into an all-too-common superhero formula: Brand-new Hero(es) + Obligatory Bad Guy = Arbitrary Third Act Battle. If you feel like you've seen it before, it's because you have — many, many, times.
But zoning out during the more routine elements might make some other things more obvious, namely the film's effort to apply a heavy Asian design influence throughout. “Big Hero 6” appears to be set in San Francisco, but upon further review, the location is actually dubbed "San Fransokyo," complete with Asian design riffs applied to familiar visuals such as the Golden Gate Bridge. The characters themselves carry a subtle anime vibe as well.
While there's no denying the visual appeal, the reasoning behind the effort is never explained. San Francisco already has a fairly substantial Asian influence, and it isn’t clear why the filmmakers decided to exaggerate it. Did the animators just think it would look cool? Is this supposed to be some Star Trek-style city of the future where lines of nationality have become blurred beyond recognition? Is Disney just pandering to its international market?
Of course, the target audience for “Big Hero 6” probably won’t notice any of the film’s subtext, and they probably won’t be bothered by the standard hero formula either. “Big Hero 6” is still a fun, family-friendly option for a variety of filmgoers, but sadly, its strong opening suggests the finished product could have been better.
"Big Hero 6" is rated PG for action and peril, some rude humor, and thematic elements.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.