Superhero origin stories are ubiquitous in our comic-book-happy pop culture, but none of them has been as sheerly, simply delightful as Big Hero 6… maybe because it barely feels like an origin story at all. Oh, all the familiar elements are here, in this gorgeously animated Disney flick: a young genius tormented by grief; high-tech gadgets; a complex villain; funny sidekicks. But the movie is so utterly unself-conscious that even the moments of self-referential humor — the kind that are inevitable when one of the superteam is a big ol’ geek who has been actively trying to reinvent himself as a comic-book character — play like something we’ve never seen before. (You’d probably never guess that this is based on characters from the Marvel universe if you weren’t already aware of that fact.)
Fourteen-year-old Hiro (the voice of Ryan Potter) is a robotics whiz who wants to join his older brother Tadashi’s (the voice of Daniel Henney: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) university “nerd lab.” Here, Tadashi’s friends (the voices of T.J. Miller [Transformers: Age of Extinction, How to Train Your Dragon 2], Jamie Chung [Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, The Hangover Part III], Damon Wayans Jr. [The Other Guys, Marmaduke], and Genesis Rodriguez [Identity Thief, The Last Stand]) are (mostly) all working on neat-o projects out of science fiction (or comic books), and Tadashi himself is helping to “push the boundaries of robotics” with his cuddly, huggable paramedic robot Baymax (the voice of Scott Adsit: We’re the Millers, The Informant!). We’ve seen nonthreatening robots onscreen before, but nothing as trope-busting as Baymax.
Indeed, Big Hero 6 subverts genre clichés at every turn as Hiro and his new friends — including the nonhuman one — find themselves driven by circumstances to some actions that look suspiciously superheroic. The movie actually faces head on the subject of death and despair when the story takes a dark turn; it’s rare for a movie ostensibly aimed at children to tackle the matter so directly (and heartbreakingly) as this one does. The movie confronts Hiro’s childishly rageful sense of morality — and, by extension, that of comic books in the stereotype, if not always in reality — and guides him to a more nuanced attitude. And 6 smashes the wall of white-dude-dom superhero movies have become with its gang of color that — wonder of wonders! — includes two women among its ranks. That’s partly a result of setting its tale in the parallel West Coast city of San Fransokyo, a lushly neo-futuristic urban playground that I would love to wander around and explore.
Fresh, funny, and full of thrilling SFnal ideas and a lot of big-hearted warmth, Big Hero 6 is joyous and exhilarating, a true original.
See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Big Hero 6 for its representation of girls and women.