REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media
Even aficionados of the comic book genre may be ignorant of the obscure team of Marvel superheroes, who appear in the animated feature, “Big Hero 6.”
The Disney film is set in the futuristic city of San Fransokyo. As the skyline reflects, “Big Hero 6” is a mashup of traditional Western animation sensibilities and Japanese manga style.
The film revolves around Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter, who, like the character he voices, is biracial). Hiro is a precocious 14-year old genius, who graduated high school the prior year. The orphaned lad is being raised by his affectionate Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph), who operates a neighborhood coffee shop. Hiro, his Aunt Cass, and an older brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney), live in a space above the shop.
Hiro fritters away his high-tech savvy, designing mini-robots. He shows up at underground bot fights, where attendees wager on the outcome of the matches. Hiro pretends to be a naïf, before hustling Yama (Paul Briggs), a mountain-sized Chinese competitor, out of his money.
Hadashi becomes concerned by the trajectory of his younger brother’s life. Under false pretenses, he drags Hiro to the high-tech research lab at his school, the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology. At first, Hiro dismisses the site as a hangout for geek losers.
However, Hiro quickly changes his mind when he meets Hadashi’s cool colleagues. Wasabi (Damon Wayan, Jr.) has the physique of an NFL lineman, but is a prissy neatnik. The ever sarcastic Go-Go (Jamie Chung) specializes in a variety of spinning wheel contraptions. Honey Lemon is a tall, willowy innovator of a laser blade contraption. Fred (T.J. Miller) is a tousle-haired, psychologically arrested slacker. He harbors an obsession with Godzilla and other puerile pursuits.
Then, as the coup de grace, Hadashi unveils his invention, Baymatch (Scott Adsit). He’s a robot, with bloated somatype of the Pillsbury Doughboy, complemented by a decidedly non-threatening mien. Hadashi has programmed Baymatch to serve as a health care attendant, who can look after his irrepressible sibling.
Suddenly, Hiro is hooked. He desperately wants to enroll in the university’s applied science program. To do so, he will have to be vetted by Professor Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell), chairman of the department.
In anticipation of the upcoming science fair sponsored by the school, Hiro designs a matrix of mircobots, which can aggregate into a variety of permutations at their master’s command. Duly impressed, Professor Callaghan grants Hiro admission to the program.
Alistair Krei (Alan Tudyk) a rapacious entrepreneur, is at the fair, eager to purchase marketable products. When Krei attempts to purchase Hiro’s invention, the latter defers to Professor Callaghan’s suggestion and rebuffs the businessman’s overtures.
As Hiro, Hadashi, and the latter’s pals exit the building, it erupts in flames. Hadashi heroically rushes back into the building to rescue Professor Callaghan. Alas, it is to avail. In his futile effort to save Professor Callaghan, Hadashi is killed by an explosion.
A Kabuki-wearing villain appears, commanding the microbots, which had been designed by Hiro. Hiro concludes that the fire was the result of arson and that the perpetrator has purloined his invention.
He revises Baymatch’s programming to include karate and other martial arts. Then, Hiro galvanizes Baywatch and Hadashi’s surviving buddies into a crime-fighting squad, who will track down the person culpable for the fire and his brother’s death.
The original comic book, created by Steven T. Seagle and Duncan Rouleau, involved the Japanese government. It recruited operatives to form an elite group of crime-fighters. A bureaucrat, Mr. Oshima, coordinated the team’s activities. Silver Samurai, the erstwhile bodyguard of the nefarious villain, Viper, was their field commander. Although Mr. Oshima attempted to entice young Hiro into joining the operation, he spurns the invitations. When Hiro’s mother is kidnapped by Everwraith, an evil spectral projection. He changes his mind. Eager to rescue his mother, Hiro created Baywatch, which was able to transform into a fire-breathing dragon. He then reluctantly joined Big Hero 6.
Subsequently, the group is joined by Sunfire, the leading Nipponese superhero. He later leaves the group to join his fellow mutants as part of Professor Chares Xavier’s X-Men. Silver Samurai is seemingly slain by the Marvel villainess, Elektra. In yet another example of the Big Hero 6 interacting with other Marvel characters, they are later contacted by Spider-Man, who needs their help to battle Doctor Octopus.
The film version, screenwritten by Jordan Roberts and Daniel Gerson, uses the source graphic novel strictly as a jumping off point. It moves the setting from Japan to a college campus in an apocryphal California city. It dispenses with such major characters as Mr. Oshima, Silver Samurai, and Sunfire. When Disney purchased Marvel Comics, it did not include the previously sold rights to those characters, who had appeared in the Avengers series. These characters remained the property of Paramount Pictures. As a consequence, the film version strictly demarcates the narrative from the rest of the Marvel Comics universe, which remains strictly off limits.
The screenplay transforms GoGo from a conditionally emancipated jailbird onto a college coed. Fred is reduced from someone, who is able to transform himself into Godzilla, to a mere goofy fanboy of the giant lizard. It creates new characters like Hiro’s brother, Hamada; Aunt Cass; Professor Callaghan; Alistair Krei; none of whom appear in the comic book series. The screenplay dials down the level of peril and interjects moments of levity. As a consequence, pre-adolescents can comfortably enjoy the film. Other recent Disney vehicles were explicitly targeted either for girls (“Tangled,” “Frozen”) or for boys (“Wreck-it Ralph”). “Big Hero 6” packs plenty of action to assuage the appetites of young boys. However, it also includes female heroes to provide a point of identification for distaff grade schoolers. Hiro is Eurasian, making him the first biracial lead in a Disney animated film. GoGo is Japanese; Wasabi is clearly African American, despite what his name suggests. Meanwhile, Fred, Honey Lemon, and Aunt Cass are standard issue white Americans.
A triumph of gender role deconstruction and all-inclusive multiculturalism, “Big Hero 6” is big fun for children and adults alike.
“Big Hero 6” *** PG (for action and peril, some rude humor, and thematic elements) 105 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.