The Playlist’s first ever visit to the Tokyo International Film Festival could scarcely have got off to a more appropriate start than with the World Premiere of the new film from Walt Disney Animation Studios: “Big Hero 6” from directors Don Hall (“Winnie the Pooh”) and Chris Williams (“Bolt”). After all, we’re a U.S.-based publication journeying across the world to experience our first Asian festival, and one of the overriding themes of the film is cross-cultural hybridization —it’s set in a fictionalized melange of two iconic cities (see if you can guess which ones), the near-future metropolis of San Fransokyo. But there are also corporate cultures meeting here for the first time: this is a Disney film based on a Marvel comic book property, and while it’s definitely a Hollywood film, it wears its manga influences on its sleeve with foregrounded pride. And for the most part, the admixture is intoxicating, skillfully grafting the clean, familiar but still effective emotional throughlines of classic Disney storytelling onto the interesting topography of this more recent, Japanese-inflected terrain. In fact, inasmuch as “Frozen” amounted to Disney reinventing their traditional gender politics, “Big Hero 6” can in some ways be seen as the studio addressing its historical reputation for ethnic homogeneity and cultural appropriation. Addressing it in the form of a big, lovably goofy, marshmallow-shaped robot nurse called Baymax.
Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) is a 14-year-old robotics prodigy, orphaned along with his elder brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) when he was just three and left in care of his Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph). Hiro wastes his significant brainpower grifting local robot fights while Tadashi, by contrast, studies at university, designing a cuddly, caregiving robot nurse/doctor/diagnostician called Baymax (Scott Adsit). Tadashi shares a lab with four other self-described “nerds” (though there’s really no sense that the word has any negative connotations), a conveniently Benetton-diverse group, each of whom has their “thing”: Gogo (Jamie Chung) is a feisty goth-y engineering genius; Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr) is a neat freak and neurotic laser specialist; Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) is a preternaturally talented chemist; while Fred (TJ Miller) is the dropout college mascot/motormouth who occupies the wisecracking sidekick role here (often rather irritatingly). When Hiro sees all the cool stuff they’re up to, he goes all out to impress the visionary Professor Callaghan (James Cromwell) so that he’ll let him join the class. But the very night of his triumph, the lab burns down and Tadashi, who rushes in to save Callaghan, is killed.
This is only the beginning of a extremely involved plot that sees Hiro learn about five lessons per minute regarding friendship, being true to yourself, grief, teamwork, the duty of creative genius, morality, the emptiness of revenge etc, etc. It’s often heady stuff for a Disney movie, and the film shows an admirable willingness to go to some dark places (a scene where the gang ends up driving off a pier and getting trapped in a car underwater feels unusually real-world perilous) in order to map Hiro’s inevitable and constant embrace of what’s right and, ultimately, heroic. But the sheer number of lessons that Hiro has to learn means that the film takes on a rather episodic quality; a lot of little battles rather that one grand arc. And in constantly introducing new strands of plot and subplot, something’s gotta give, and that something is the characterization of the paper-thin supporting players, as well as dialogue which veers from prosaic to eye-rollingly on-the-nose. Furthermore, this overstuffed quality makes it sometimes feel like the directors aren’t aware that the real gold is in the relationship between Hiro and Baymax, who, having been designed by Tadashi and remaining active after his death, becomes a touching proxy for Hiro’s beloved sibling. Baymax has been programmed solely to ease pain and becomes pet, companion, helpmate and ultimately superhero in an effort to heal a little boy who is otherwise unable to process his vast, wrenching grief. At moments, “Big Hero 6” threatens to vie with “Up” for Most Touching Animated Film About The Grieving Process, but then something new and noisy distracts us.
However, the design of the film is pretty much flawless. And along with the the wonderfully detailed rendering of San Fransokyo, with streetcars hung with paper lanterns and its Asian-ified Golden Gate Bridge, it’s the conception of Baymax that is the film’s greatest treat. Beautifully conceived as a device of pure goodness, he’s basically a huge balloon animal, moving with believable physics (and even squeaky balloon noises) and repairing himself with sellotape when he springs leaks. From the way he sidles bashfully out from too-small spaces, to the way he learns how to fist bump (there are definite shades of the young John Connor/Terminator relationship at times), to the extended sequence in which he is essentially rendered drunk by a draining battery, Baymax might be Disney’s most wholly adorable creation ever, and that’s surely saying something.
But outside the design, the animation and the laudable attempt to meld different storytelling and graphic traditions, the film is on slightly shakier ground. The story morphs from one thing to another rather too often, and a few nice flourishes are marred by reintroduction and lack of subtlety. The first time we hear Gogo say “woman up!” it’s a fun if obvious nod to female empowerment, but the second time it’s an empty catchphrase. Similarly, a glimpse at a portrait on the wall of Fred’s mansion is a fun easter egg for Marvel fans that is rendered moot by an extended post-credits scene. And we can’t ignore the absolutely godawful specially-commissioned Fall Out Boy track “Immortal,” which is slathered all over a montage and then wails over the end credits, disrupting the otherwise solid if unmemorable work of Henry Jackman’s score. How much any of this might impact the kids in the audience we can’t really say —in fact, the restlessness of the story might well work to keep their attention (in general it feels like it skews slightly older than ‘Frozen’), and hopefully one single, borderline unlistenable pop-punk dirge will not an army of pint-sized emos make.
Egregious soundtrack missteps aside, “Big Hero 6” is truly glorious to look at and comprises a mostly beguiling mixture of genres, story strands and cultures, though it remains a mixture rather than a wholly seamless synthesis. Otherwise, whatever flaws it has are ones of over-enthusiasm and over-ambition and are therefore easy to forgive, especially because when it works, it really works [read: there were tears]. It’s a film that clearly has had lots of care lavished on almost every aspect of its conception and execution, and to echo a weighted phrase frequently returned to, to various levels of heart-tugging effect: with “Big Hero 6” I am satisfied with my care. You, and any bright-eyed moppets of your acquaintance, probably will be too. [B/B+]