'Big Hero 6' starts off great, but devolves into a cookie-cutter comic-book action movie
Big Hero 6 Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Don Hall and Chris Williams
Screenplay: Jordan Roberts, Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird, based on characters created by Duncan Rouleau and Steven T. Seagle
Starring: The voices of Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, Daniel Henney, T.J. Miller, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans Jr, Genesis Rodriguez, James Cromwell, Maya Rudolph and Alan Tudyk
Rated PG / 1 hour, 42 minutes
November 7, 2014
(out of four)
As the closing credits began to roll, I found myself wondering what had happened. I couldn't even pinpoint exactly when it had happened. But somewhere along the line, Big Hero 6 had gone from a really good movie to a pretty bad one.
It essentially boils down to a decision to shift gears about halfway through, going from a warm character piece to a big action movie. The decision in and of itself isn't the problem; it's inevitable anyway. Like the various other films this one could be compared to, like The Iron Giant, E.T. or even Transformers - basically anything in which a lonely kid finds companionship and protection in an otherworldly or technologically advanced force of nature - the narrative momentum is always invariably propelling things toward action and suspense.
The problem is that, while there's so much care and subtlety to the first half, the second half is decidedly lazy and strikingly unimaginative, both in its focus and its storytelling. There's so much in that opening half that isn't just introduction and setup - so many world-building details and character nuances and mini comic setpieces. The filmmakers really breathe life and humor into every scene.
And then they hit the wall of genre requirements and, instead of going nuts with the same kind of creative energy they displayed early on, they go on autopilot.
Look, the title of the movie is an obvious indication that, eventually, it's going to get around to superheroes and crimefighting, so I was well-prepared. But to see that transition happen with such a lack of inspiration was dispiriting. There's a whole team of crimefighters, in fact - but there's no character exploration, only a montage. And despite appearances, there's really not much of an adversary, either - just a sorry excuse for one, a supervillain façade with an embarrassingly lazy backstory.
The one thing Big Hero 6 has going for it even in the second half is the central relationship between the young boy and his new pet robot, but the movie manages to screw even that up by the end.
The boy is Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter), a 14-year-old whiz kid and science geek who graduated from high school two years earlier. Instead of going off to college or making a living as a tech wizard somewhere, he's been coasting ever since graduation. In fact, he's been using that big brain of his to, in effect, extend (or recapture?) his childhood - by playing with toy robots for a living. In the futuristic world of San Fransokyo (which is exactly what it sounds like, and serves as a nice encapsulation of the film's Silicon Valley roots as well as its Japanese influences), there's a whole underground subculture surrounding the fighting of (and gambling on) custom-built robots. Hiro is a pretty solid hustler, always showing up at the fights looking as innocent and sweet as can be before taking the resident champs for all he can. His robots deliberately appear rudimentary, but are deceptively advanced, and borderline impossible for the more traditional robots to defeat.
Of course, his hustling has him perpetually on the run from both his victims and the cops, and he's gotten arrested a time or two. Thankfully, he has his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) to look out for him.
The similarly brainy Tadashi is a hotshot student at the local university who specializes in advanced robotics - and he's trying to get Hiro to join him and finally live up to his potential. But just as Hiro has finally come around to the idea - inventing, as his official application to the school, mind-controlled microbots that can do virtually anything - his brother dies in a freak accident at the lab when he rushes into the burning building trying to save the life of his professor.
Hiro, already orphaned and living with his aunt (Maya Rudolph), is naturally devastated and loses all interest in going to college. However, left in his room is a sort of unintended parting gift from Tadashi - the technologically groundbreaking, portly, vinyl-skinned, friendly robot known as Baymax (voiced by Scott Adsit). Baymax is designed as a personal healthcare bot, able to instantly scan his "patients" for all kinds of maladies, from basic anxiety to legitimate injuries.
Big Hero 6 gets a ton of mileage out of the budding partnership between Hiro and Baymax, who begins as a curiosity, briefly becomes a nuisance, and settles in as a protector and surrogate friend. He is also the film's best object of comedy. Directors Don Hall and Chris Williams do a great job toying with the way Baymax's body moves - slow, deliberate and always encumbered by his size - as well as how his programmed personality clashes with that of a hormonally and emotionally unstable young teenager. There are obvious parallels to Jake Schreier's terrific Robot & Frank (for those who saw that movie, anyway); both deadpan robot companions were exclusively concerned with their human companions' health, at whatever cost. And like that movie, Big Hero 6's best and funniest moments are just between the two main characters.
But once we reach a certain point in the narrative, the film all but abandons everything it has done well - including the world-building in and around San Fransokyo, which begins as a fascinating backdrop but ends as a complete non-factor - in exchange for action for action's sake, a villain for villain's sake, with all of it culminating in a false and unearned emotional climax that tries to reconcile the film's two disparate halves.
About that "villain." He appears all of a sudden, wearing a black duster and a kabuki mask, and seems to have gotten his hands on the aforementioned microbots, much to the chagrin of Hiro and his cohorts (Tadashi's friends and colleagues from the robotics lab), as well as the now-armored Baymax.
First of all, there are only two choices* for the identity of this masked menace - neither of them interesting. The fact that the script hides that identity until the third act of the film only underscores how uninteresting it is.
* Technically, there's a third option, but it would be such a massive betrayal that I never really considered it a possibility for this movie.
Aside from that, the backstory we get is laughable - with a perfunctory surveillance tape explaining everything about our villain's motivation - and his ultimate plan, and the character as a whole, make next to no sense. And while he epitomizes the dullness of the film's second half, he's not the only culprit. The filmmakers rush through the setup required to make the action and crimefighting elements work, and then proceed to rush through the action itself, eventually landing at an ending in which almost nothing has been learned, accomplished or put at stake.