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November 14, 2014

Cute robot can't save Big Hero 6 from clichés

Big Hero 6—the latest Disney animated family film, which takes its inspiration from a little known Marvel superhero team—seems to have something for everyone. It’s set in the neo-futuristic city of San Fransokyo, a utopian blend of San Francisco and Tokyo with charmingly old-fashioned condos and townhouses next to monolithic skyscrapers and wind turbines. There’s a cuddly high-tech marshmallow of a robot, Baymax, whose guiding principle is to serve as the perfect health care assistant, as well as back-alley robotic fights to satisfy all the Beyblade and Bionicle fans of yore, and plenty of techy eye-candy in the power suits and laser beams and fight scenes.

We begin with Hiro Hamada, an orphaned 14-year-old robotics genius who spends his time winning clandestine bot fights. His big brother Tadashi, an engineering student at an MIT-esque San Fransokyo research university, convinces Hiro to apply to the school, but dies in an unexpected explosion. The grief-stricken Hiro withdraws into his room only to find that one of Tadashi’s creations, the puffy health care robot Baymax, is still functioning. It is Baymax who ultimately leads Hiro to the hideout of a masked man who may have been responsible for Tadashi’s death.

The story is a hodgepodge of genres covering loss, revenge, familial love, and a few small nods to hot-button issues like sustainability, diversity and representation in the STEM fields, and the necessity of science and youthful talent in building a better future. The fact is, however, that in its urge to please, Big Hero 6 may stretch itself too far. In only about 100 minutes of runtime, the movie attempts to cover too many themes and narrative arcs, rushing each subplot so that none of the characters get enough time on screen. Hiro and Tadashi’s ditzy, lovable Aunt Cass, for instance, gets hardly any screen time; similarly, the other heroes of the Big Hero 6 entourage—Honey Lemon, GoGo Tamago, Wasabi, and Fred—are quickly introduced and just as quickly turned into tropes. There’s hardly any room for believable development of the friendship between the older college students and Hiro.

Perhaps more problematically, the movie’s several arcs—from Hiro’s loss of Tadashi, to the discovery of the villain’s identity, to the creation of the super suits and subsequent training, to the final showdown—are underdeveloped and simply unconvincing. Though the setting and initial premise have very promising ties to much of contemporary society’s interest in youthful, Zuckerberg-esque science prodigies and the rapid acceleration of technology in modern life, ultimately the film feels derivative. (There’s a scene where Hiro flies on Baymax, newly equipped with wings and turbo jets—a montage that vividly recalls How To Train Your Dragon; in another scene, Baymax, drifting away with turbo jets failing, looks unmistakably like an astronaut being cut away from the line.) Overall, there seem to be too many takeaways for any overarching takeaway to really be successful.

Certainly there are many pluses to the film: The cuddly Baymax is himself a major draw, and the animation, design, and exuberant (if somewhat flatly sketched) characters are all fun and worth whiling an hour or an hour and a half away with. But for all its charms, Big Hero 6 falls somewhat short. Ultimately, we’ve seen its type before.

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