Big Hero 6—directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams—is the latest animated release by Disney this year and the best since Toy Story 3. The divergence from the normal western canon of traditional princess-themed animation to Japanese katakiuchi is one of the freshest surprises in recent American animation to date. It has a distinctive style, defining itself in the most gorgeous eastern aesthetics, while at the same time retaining its classic Disney tone.
The incredible production design of this film (which almost beckons a person to watch the film in 3D), from the small details to the city landscapes, invites us to question the relationship between reality and fantasy. At least twice in the film, we are invited to bask in the beauty and spectacle of modern animation, moving through the hyper-reality of space and watching a sunset from the top of the city. Big Hero 6 is set in a Jet Set Radio-stylized futuristic amalgamation of San Francisco and Tokyo, named San Fransokyo. Rather than create a fictional city of the future, which disassociates the audience from the visceral and the moral, the writers compose the Japanese architecture and visual motifs with the monuments and urban planning of San Francisco. This unique portmanteau, coupled with the more quiet details reminds us that even though this animated film is fantastic, futuristic, and otherworldly, the themes sublimated by culture are universal.
A tale of revenge, Big Hero 6 grapples with darker themes that most animated children’s films would not even attempt to brush over. The dramatic tension arises from a younger brother finding his brother’s killer and the moral dilemma that arises from avenging the death of a pacifist. A robotics prodigy, 14-year-old Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) is a robot-fighting enthusiast who can’t seem to channel his engineering potential in the way he wants. Hiro’s brother, robotics student Tadashi Hamada (Daniel Henney), tries to convince Hiro to gain entrance to one of the best engineering universities—San Fransokyo Tech—after he shows him a tour of the robotics lab and his newest invention, a personal healthcare robot named Baymax (Scott Adsit). Reinvigorated, Hiro enters a San Fransokyo Tech exhibition with his mind-controlled microbot invention and wins admission to the prestigious university from the highly esteemed professor Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell). Adam Krei, a rich tech business tycoon, is impressed with Hiro’s invention and decides to counter his admissions offer with a business opportunity, but Hiro spurns him. As the exhibition concludes, the building explodes, drowning Hiro’s brother and microbots in flames. Tadashi’s legacy of compassion remains imprinted on Baymax, who constantly suffocates the despondent Hiro with caring and affection. Hiro, in his depressed state, overlooks a clue as to the reason that the exhibition exploded, and Baymax takes the lead as Hiro is forced to follow. They arrive at an abandoned warehouse run by a madman in a kabuki mask, manufacturing Hiro’s mind-controlled microbots. To stop the “villain,” Hiro upgrades Baymax with new abilities while making super suits for himself and Tadashi’s robotics friends.
The only place where this film fails to garner attention is its humor. There is a lot of ironic and deadpan humor, which contrasts nicely with the superhero theme and many action sequences. The problem is that a lot of the jokes are overused. Groucho Marx famously said that any good joke has to be repeated three times within a film for maximum comedic effect and anything else is overkill. Big Hero 6 proves the validity of this statement with its fist-bumping joke four or five times.
It may be hard for viewers to go see Big Hero 6 because it does not so easily fit the Disney mold. It does not have an easily identifiable villain, black and white morality, a great sing-along original song, or even princesses in castles. The film, however, repays the effort to watch in kind and may be one of the most memorable Hollywood animation experiences in years.
Featured Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios