Thanks to some unfortunate scheduling, Disney’s new animated feature, Big Hero 6, is going to engender unflattering comparisons from older audience members. For one, they’ll probably be able to hear the bombastic score of this week’s other big release, Interstellar, from across the theatre, knowing Big Hero 6’s “up with science” message and charming robot companion can be found in Christopher Nolan’s latest, along with a whole lot else of substance. But more importantly, Disney’s first animated film to capitalize on Marvel’s Infinity Gauntlet grip on viewers is releasing exactly ten years and two days after The Incredibles, which remains a frontrunner for title of “Best Superhero Movie Ever,” animated or otherwise.
The people (kids, rather) Big Hero 6 is aimed at likely won’t make the connection, but anyone old enough to remember The Incredibles (or link its director, Brad Bird, to the trailer for Tomorrowland preceding Big Hero 6) will spend most of their viewing in a malaise that’s equal parts “been there,” and “done that.” Where Bird’s first family of animated heroes had the luxury of actually being first on the scene, Big Hero 6 can’t help but tread ground already well stomped by other superhero flicks of the last decade. Presented with an animation style and tone that’s as safe and edgeless as any modern jungle gym, Big Hero 6 makes for the most daring mash-up of popular flavours since peanut butter met jelly.
Based on a comic book miniseries obscure enough to offend only the hardest of hardcore fans by altering it, Big Hero 6 at least tries to distance itself from other superhero movies through its setting. Though its introduction is indifferently staged, the city of San Fransokyo, where the film is set, inspires many interesting questions, ones that Big Hero 6 has no interest in answering. Why the San-Asian fusion of West Coast America with Japanese architecture and culture? “Because it’s cool,” seems to be the answer, one never directly stated by the film, but which does inform most of Big Hero 6’s primary operating procedures.
The other big thing Big Hero 6 thinks is really cool? Science. Or, at least, comic book science, where anything awesome is only a quick montage away from existing. It’s a forward-thinking obsession in abstract alone, one embodied by the film’s sweet, but shallow protagonist, Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), a 14-year-old genius orphan that only starts to apply his intellect once invited to join his older brother’s lab group of collegiate misfits. When tragedy strikes, Hiro devotes himself to apprehending the responsible party by upgrading his new friends into a band of science-enhanced crime fighters.
If you already think you know where the story will end up going, then congratulations: you’ve probably seen Iron Man. Or Spider-Man. Or any other of the half-dozen superhero films from which Big Hero 6 assembles a narrative of flashy, overly familiar moments. A dodgy industrialist and one of the hero’s inventions being used for revenge inspires much of the conflict; there’s the climactic portal of doom from The Avengers, complete with insulting, “nah, just kidding” moment of solemnity that’s become a staple of every Marvel movie since. The familiarity wouldn’t be a negative if Big Hero 6 had an inspired world to fall back on, but the carefully laid out Hamada home feels more thoughtfully constructed than any of the locales explored in San Fransokyo.
Hiro’s got the smarm of Tony Stark and the emotional baggage of Batman, but there’s not much else to him. It’s more than can be said of the plug-‘n-play characters he teams up with though, most of whom will likely be remembered by the audience as “the _____ one.” Big Hero 6 has a fine vocal cast at its disposal, but never the time to let them develop their characters beyond a single defining trait. The exception that saves Big Hero 6 pretty much entirely is Baymax (Scott Adsit). Combining the binary chic design of ASIMO with the innate hug-ability of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, Hiro’s robotic pal provides the film not just a heart, but a calm padding of dry understatement for its otherwise hyperactive comic energy to bounce off of.
Visually, Big Hero 6 checks all the boxes expected of Disney’s 3D animated fare. It’s colorful, balances physics-defying slapstick with strong spatial grounding, and is finely detailed enough to make even individual eyebrow hairs stand out. But in a year where animation can be as lovingly crafted as The Boxtrolls, as exhilarating as How to Train Your Dragon 2, or boundlessly creative as The Lego Movie, Big Hero 6 again suffers from existing in airspace occupied by numerous noteworthy colleagues, instead of a vacuum.
But, none of that will matter much to the audience Big Hero 6 was intended for, the same audience that will no doubt enjoy the television series that will probably spawn off a movie designed like a 105-minute pilot. That’s fine. By a hair and a Baymax, Big Hero 6 makes for diverting and thoroughly inoffensive entertainment (give or take a spooning joke). It’s not forgettable, mind you: it’s just far too easy to conflate with myriad contemporaries and predecessors.