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Big Hero 6 is a top-shelf superhero movie that just happens to also be an animated family movie from Disney. It's gorgeously designed, well directed, features a terrific voice cast and a surprisingly affecting story that can stand up with some of the best of the genre; appropriately reflecting an overarching theme of reinforcing the importance of intelligence, education and creative thought to its young audience. I only wish it had as much faith in kids' attention-spans as it does in their capacity for science and engineering.
It's the first animated feature from Disney to be based on a Marvel comic book franchise, though the source material is so obscure and the adaptation so loose it really doesn't matter all that much, and the two studios have actively downplayed the connection for whatever reason.
Whereas the original comic grouped a collection of original and lower-tier Marvel characters with Japanese-related origins into a team looking to jump on the Manga bandwagon, the film reimagines some of the newer members into a multiethnic team of teenaged brainiacs living in fictional San Fransokyo; which basically looks like San Francisco if it had been invaded and overtaken by Nintendo instead of Google.
While it's ultimately a team story and is clearly angling to kickstart a series, this inaugural installment is mainly built around nominal team-leader Hiro Hamada, a rebellious young robotics genius whose fast-track to early college has been waylaid by grief over the tragic death of a family member - I mean, what else would it be, in a superhero origin? - that he comes to suspect was not an accident but part of a mysterious supervillain's sinister plot involving next-generation nanomachine technology stolen from Him.
To aid in his investigation, he conscripts the aid of Baymax, an inflatable medical robot whom Hiro retrofits into a war machine. Baymax, for its part, goes along with the plan strictly because it fits with his programming to do whatever will aid Hiro's emotional and physical recuperation. To that end, it pushes Hiro to enlist his teen-genius friends Wasabi, Honey Lemon, GoGo Tomago and Fred as well; who outfit themselves with weapons and gadgets built from their individual scientific disciplines to become the Big Hero 6 and take down the mystery villain.
It's all very colorful and fast-paced, building characters through action as opposed to pauses for dialogue or fleshing things out. The characters themselves are across the board winners, the obvious standout being Baymax, whose unlikely-bruiser demeanor and Siri-like insistent literalism places him somewhere between Drax The Destroyer and Chewbacca in onscreen persona.
Ryan Potter finds a realistic line between obnoxious and earnest as Hiro, T.J. Miller sounds like he's having a ball as Fred and Jamie Chung breathes fresh life into GoGo's familiar tomboy routine - I especially like how she deploys her catchphrase/war-cry of "Woman up!" regardless of the gender of whomever she's talking to. Genesis Rodriguez does fun things with Honey Lemon, who might've wound up a "nerd-gurl" caricature otherwise and Damon Wayans Jr. does great subtle but hysterical work as Wasabi. And while the film will rightly get a lot of credit for the team's welcome diversity compared to most other movie superhero teams of late, what's most refreshing is what they have in common: Namely that these are all characters whose positive qualities come from education and intelligence - even their powers are extensions of their science skills.
The big winner is Baymax, who along with being a marvel of character design is also one of the best renderings of what practical A.I. might actually look and behave like since the excellent, underappreciated Robot & Frank. There's never any suggestion that Baymax has a "soul" is magically developing into something humanlike, just that his programming is so reactive and functional that it allows a user (or an audience) to project humanity onto him - if in fact "him" is even the right phrase.
BUT! And, unfortunately, there is a "but" ...about that "attention span" thing, Big Hero 6 also ends up being another confirmation that we really need to get over this narrative that kids won't sit through a movie if it runs longer than 90 minutes. The film ends up feeling a little on the short side once the "main" story kicks in, another instance where you realize you've entered the big finale and the first reaction is "Wait - we're here already?"
It's mainly an issue of resource-allocation: They clearly figured out early on that Baymax helping Hiro work through his depression and survivor's guilt was the heart of the film (which it is) and so that arc gets the lion's share of the attention. And because Hiro even getting to the point of asking his friends for help is huge milestone in that kind of narrative, it means the superhero business doesn't actually kick-in until the movie is almost half over - so the Big Hero 6 coming together, establishing their abilities, encountering the bad guy, figuring out his identity (which is too easy at first but then goes to an interesting, unexpected place) facing a setback, rallying and the big final Avengers-style showdown all feel like part of the same dash to the finish...
...which shouldn't be a problem, except the film does such a good job of making Hiro's friends such dynamic, enjoyable characters with such a joyful and natural team-dynamic that you want more time for them to just hang chill out and expand on it. Sure, this thing is probably going to be a huge hit so they'll have room to do that in sequels, but yeah I did end up wanting more from this.
Still, the stuff that needs to work here works really well. It's a great superhero movie, animated or not, and another big winner for Disney Animation's recent renaissance.
Bottom Line: Gorgeously designed, well directed, features a terrific voice cast and a surprisingly affecting story. Can stand up with some of the best of the superhero genre and fellow Disney animated classics.
Recommendation: Unless you absolutely cannot stand either superheroes or cartoons, it's a must-see. Will likely end up being one of the best films of the season - if not the year.