Big Hero 6 is a big smash

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Disney’s Big Hero 6 is a fantastically syncretic vision on multiple levels. Not only does it manage to pique the interest of animation fans, the hook being its blend of Eastern and Western animation styles, but its primary goal comes across as bringing together the appeals of the studio’s biggest properties, Pixar and Marvel– with albeit mixed results.

Set in the fantasy-like Sanfransokoyo (a portmanteau of the familiar West and East Coast cities), Big Hero 6 is first and foremost the origin story of its not-quite-titular character, Hiro. Still coping with the death of his parents, and shortly into the first act, his beloved, inventor brother Tadashi, Hiro is an incredibly gifted fourteen-year-old “bot-fighter” rendered almost comatose by grief.

After accidentally setting off Tadashi’s final invention, Baymax, a cross between the Disney staple of the talking animal and Ghostbusters’ Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, he finds himself searching for the villain responsible for his brother’s death, who may be using an invention of Hiro’s for evil. Bringing his brother’s equally-gifted inventor colleagues into the mix, they form a ragtag group of heroes with the goal of saving the city from the clutches of a mad scientist– while using some mad science of their own.

There’s a lot to applaud about Big Hero 6. It’s most memorable character in a cast full of great ones doesn’t even have dialogue– the setting of Sanfransokoyo is breathtaking. With one or two indulgent, hue-filled sequences set flying through a setting that can only exist in fiction, the viewer is treated to a fantasy that makes everything about the Marvel/Disney collaboration immediately click.

There’s much that doesn’t mesh together so well, however. The Incredibles brilliantly introduced the idea of a superpowered animated film to audiences, to almost universal acclaim. It succeeded in that it wasn’t just an origin story– it was a satire, it was a story that stood alone without reliance on intertextuality. Big Hero 6 relies on your knowledge of not only the well-trodden “origin story,” but also the archetypes of a Pixar film– i’s rushing through these archetypes and familiar story arcs keep the pace indefatigable as it moves from one set piece to the next, but the storytelling feels sparse.

The message of grief is thrusted at the viewer without any degree of ambiguity or complexity; the emotional overtones can be slightly strong and definitely obvious. It’s forgivable, given that it’s “just an animated film,” as casual moviegoers might put it, but it draws to mind the emotional sophistication that made Pixar films work and which John Lasseter and Roy Conli tried to duplicate here. Even past Disney offerings, such as Lilo and Stitch, handled these themes better.

That said, even if Disney is pulling strings, they still pull them well– Baymax’s character in particular offers levity as well a conduit for emotional weight, and it works.

The film’s other big accomplishment is an important one– deliberately departing from the norm of the animated films preceding it, Big Hero 6 is a wonderful celebration of nerd culture. Its unabashed love for the pursuit of knowledge, and invention and all things geeky is a valuable thing to convey to its young target audience. Its affection for its nerd-and-proud-of-it characters shines through; it has the effect of making you wish you were better at high school science.

With a heart that’s perhaps too big for its brain, Big Hero 6 delivers promises–at least of what Disney animation is at the precipice of achieving, if not the storytelling muscle and invention necessary for it to truly stand on its own.