Disney owns Marvel Entertainment, so it’s no surprise that the 54th entry in the Walt Disney Animated Classics series should directly feed into the superhero craze. Truthfully, Big Hero 6 never quite manages to feel like an exciting interpretation of the genre, at least not to the degree in which Tangled spins its own hyperactive yarn on the tale of Rapunzel; but the glove fits Disney nicely, especially with the updated Pixar/Dreamworks-esque animation the company has been refining since 2005’s Chicken Little. Plus, it’s a worthy addition to the Animated Classics, and continues the company’s spree of success that began with The Princess and the Frog‘s critical and commercial turbo-boost.
Nor is that a small accomplishment, given that Disney’s track record since then includes the excellent Wreck-it Ralph and the box-office behemoth that is Frozen. Big Hero 6 is closer to Ralph in its foregrounding of action over romance, and at times even threatens to usurp that movie’s status as the greatest Disney movie since at least Mulan. But what lets it down is that its key components – mainly the fantastic Baymax – occasionally seem forced into a superhero narrative. Baymax is at his warmest and funniest as the robotic lummox invented only to help, but when Hiro (Ryan Potter) alters his programming to add a battle mode, much of the movie’s heart is lost. Although Big Hero 6 didn’t suffer the same extended gestation period as The Lone Ranger (which was in various stages of development since 2002), Ralph (since the ’80s) and Frozen (since the ’40s), it feels as though the Baymax idea was floating around the offices at Disney for a while before somebody decided it was their safest bet for capitalising upon superhero-era Hollywood.
But true to its title, Big Hero 6 has big, heroic themes on its mind. After Hiro’s older brother and role model Tadashi is killed in a blaze, the movie infuses its central theme of the moral capabilities of technology with one of grief. This leads to some excellent sequences at dark, integral moments of the story in which diegetic sound is muted, allowing the score to overwhelm as Hiro’s frustration plays out. While the narrative permutations don’t always line up comfortably in an aesthetic sense, the film is nevertheless interesting in that emotion is often conveyed through the various ways in which its diegetic technologies are programmed, all of which serve to outwardly project the characters’ inner struggles. Added to the (parodic and/or earnest) reference points in the Terminator and Avengers movies are nods towards games such as Portal, which enhance its thematic depth by adding a character who becomes stuck in cyberspace after an incident with a transportation device, a(nother) comment on the potentially self-destructive tendencies of scientific research.
Although the film isn’t merely a rehash of Transformers-esque technofetishism, Hiro’s five human accomplices – who all don suits to become superheroes – never deliver anything hugely original, and in the movie’s biggest battle scenes, they are generally superfluous aspects of the action as their multitude lowers the stakes considerably. But they’re a fun bunch at the end of the day, and Big Hero 6 can be a blast when it wants to be, while at other times its emotional punch is more than enough. Furthermore, it’s an impeccably well designed movie, and as per tradition, Disney’s animation department have outdone themselves once again: Baymax’s inflatable aesthetic allows for many hilariously inventive moments during the first act, and especially on Blu-ray, the scenery is more astonishingly lifelike than ever. It’s also a very timely movie, as in an era in which the internet is more than ever being appropriated in benevolent and controversial ways, Big Hero 6 timestamps such issues by exploring two technologies – Baymax and the microbots – in terms of their utility as manipulated through personal ambition and emotional stress.