Back in 1951, when Disney’s animated version of Alice in Wonderland was first released, Walt Disney himself claimed that it “lacked heart,” which he felt was the reason behind its disappointing critical and commercial reception. If he were alive today, he would probably say the exact same thing about Disney’s newest 3D animated film, Big Hero 6. Even if he wouldn’t say it, I’m saying it now. This movie is a toyetic travesty – a cynical exercise in intentionally creating something that can easily be packaged and sold in toy stores, costume outlets, arcades, gift shops, and theme parks. Yes, I’m well aware that Disney is known for merchandising their animated films within an inch of their lives, but in most cases, it all stems from movies that are charming, fun, heartwarming, and triumphs of craft. Big Hero 6 looks and feels as if it had been mass produced in a factory.
Perhaps the issue is that this is the first Disney animated film to be adapted from a comic book – specifically a Marvel comic book, and how convenient that Disney is the parent company of Marvel Entertainment. It’s one thing to gear escapist, generally mindless superhero spectacles towards the key demographic of teenagers and twentysomethings, since they’re old enough to take special effects and scenes of relentless frenetic activity with a grain of salt. But when it’s deliberately geared towards younger children, who are not only the primary audience for Disney’s animated films but are also fresh-faced, creative, and curious, it comes off as indoctrination, a way to numb young imaginations to genuine storytelling and develop a dependence for garbage like the Transformers films. I cannot fathom having to list this film alongside classics like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Beauty and the Beast, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The film is set in a fictional version of San Francisco, which has, for reasons never once given, has been given a Japanese architectural facelift and has been renamed San Fransokyo. Here we meet Hiro Hamada (voiced by Ryan Potter), a wayward teenage robotics genius; despite the fact that he graduated high school at the age of thirteen and has the necessary qualifications to attend college, he instead spends his time competing in underground robot fights and illegally betting on them. Although he finally does decide to give college a try when given a tour of a prestigious tech university, he gives up on it when his beloved older brother dies in an explosion at a science expo. He instead makes it his mission to discover how and why his brother died. He has reason to believe a mysterious figure in a kabuki mask might have something to do with it, since he somehow got a hold of Hiro’s micro robots, which can be telepathically manipulated into any shape.
Helping Hiro along is one of his brother’s science projects, a robot nurse named Baymax (voiced by Scott Adsit), who has a mechanically pleasant voice and has been padded with an inflatable body, making him look like a big, portly white balloon. Many of the film’s jokes are built upon the fact that, for all of his medical programming, he has no understanding of human personality quirks or everyday expressions. Of course he wouldn’t. He is, after all, a robot. Why, then, does a low battery and a deflated body equate to him acting like a drunk, slurring his words and saying the wrong things at the wrong time? Be that as it may, Hiro eventually gives Baymax an upgrade, implanting an extra chip that supplements his bedside manner with karate moves and outfitting him with rocket boosters, a detachable rocket-powered fist, and superhero armor that makes him look like Iron Man’s rather husky twin brother.
Also helping Hiro along are four of his new college-age friends with Asian-influenced nicknames, who are typical in the sense that they’re eccentric and comical side characters, although not in the sense that they’re engaging. We have: Wasabi (voiced by Damon Wayans, Jr.), a slightly neurotic neat freak; Honey Lemon (voiced by Genesis Rodriguez), a bubbly, excitable chemistry expert; GoGo Tomago (voiced by Jamie Chung), a gum-chewing athletic type with a disaffected attitude; and Fred, a.k.a. Fredzilla (voiced by T.J. Miller), the laid-back comic book fan who actually comes from a ridiculously wealthy family. Like Baymax, Hiro and his friends will all be given superhero upgrades, which of course means that they will eventually engage in hyperactive battle with the man in the kabuki mask as Henry Jackman’s rock-heavy score pounds away on the soundtrack.
If there’s anything we’ve learned from the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – which began in 2008 with Iron Man, and will continue next summer with the release of the Avengers sequel – it’s that Stan Lee will somehow make a cameo appearance. It seems that tradition is being kept alive in Big Hero 6. But one wonders: Are young children, who the film is aimed squarely at, likely to pick up on this longstanding cinematic inside joke? A great many of those in attendance at the film’s screening did not appear to have been born in 2008, which is to say they can’t be expected to know who Stan Lee is and therefore can’t be expected to get the joke. If filmmakers had had any insight whatsoever, they would have bypassed Disney’s animation studio altogether and made the film in live action, thus avoiding having the film promoted to the wrong audience.