It’s been a good year at the movies for large, benevolent, goofy nonhuman sidekicks. There was Guardians of the Galaxy’s lovable plant-man Groot, Interstellar’s selfless space robot TARS, and now Baymax, the marshmallowlike inflatable health aide who’s pledged to protect the 14-year-old protagonist of Disney’s newest 3-D animated feature, Big Hero 6. Baymax (voiced by 30 Rock’s Scott Adsit) has been programmed to offer a range of health care options from chest defibrillation to Band-Aids, and he won’t rest—or deflate—until the human he’s serving is satisfied. This sentient puff of white vinyl has a face that’s surprisingly expressive, given that it consists of nothing more than two black dots connected by a straight line. From the moment he’s accidentally activated, Baymax proves as loyal, persistent, and endearing as a pet Labrador retriever—and often appears to grasp what’s going on at about Labrador level.
With his lumbering egg-shaped body and stubby, kneeless legs, Baymax at first seems like an odd protector for the boy, Hiro, an aspiring young superhero, who teams up with the robot and four others to make the “big six” of the title. Dragged along on a frantic foot chase, Baymax warns his companion, in a neutral robot voice tinged with a hint of Eeyore sadness, that “I am not fast.” But Baymax’s guileless devotion and pleasingly rotund animation are the best things about this lively and appealing, if less-than-original, family movie (which has been adapted from a Marvel comic book property, but which feels in spirit and style more like a lesser project from Pixar—in fact, though it’s directed by Disney veterans Don Hall and Chris Williams, the executive producer is Pixar guru John Lasseter).
The second-best thing about Big Hero 6 is the animation design of the fictional city where it takes place, a sunnily futuristic mashup of San Francisco and Tokyo called San Fransokyo. The Golden Gate Bridge (a frequent center of the action, most notably in one exhilarating scene of flight) is now topped by architectural flourishes like those on an ancient Japanese temple. Victorian houses and noodle stands line the whimsically imagined streets, above which twist interlocking elevated highways. Asian culture in Big Hero 6 isn’t just an exotic bit of stage décor but a constantly felt presence, right down to the half-Japanese, half-Anglo ethnicity of Hiro (very nicely voiced by Ryan Potter).
Like his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney)—a robotics student who invented Baymax as part of a college project—Hiro is a technology whiz. He graduated high school at age 13, but since then he’s been wasting his brainpower on designing miniature fighting robots for the shady back-alley ’bot battles that will apparently be the illegal dogfights of the future. A visit to the university lab where Tadashi and his tech-geek cohorts have been working on an array of absurdly rad inventions inspires Hiro to get his act together and apply to the elite program himself. But the unveiling of his big audition project is interrupted by an unforeseeable disaster. In the aftermath, an unknown party makes off with a sample of Hiro’s project—an army of thousands of flying microbots who execute their owner’s every command. Hard to imagine what off-label uses that might have should it ever fall into the hands of, say, a Kabuki-mask-wearing supervillain …
Especially when Baymax is onscreen doing his adorable-puffy-robot thing, Big Hero 6 qualifies as a better-than-average kids’ movie with enough cross-generational appeal to make it a fine choice for a family weekend matinee. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that this film was designed to function as a starter kit for future Marvel aficionados, a way to start grooming the still-under-4-foot-tall crowd for the rollout of live-action comic book blockbusters that’s now programmed up through 2019. Perhaps that’s why the movie Big Hero 6 most resembles in its action scenes (of which there are too many) is Guardians of the Galaxy, albeit in a gentler, more child-friendly guise. There’s also a familiar sniping camaraderie among the supernerd team that eventually assembles to help Hiro get his ’bots back: persnickety Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), shambolic Fred (T.J. Miller), tough girl GoGo (Jamie Chung), and ultrageek Honey Lemon (Génesis Rodríguez). The intrigue with the Kabuki-masked villain and the stolen micro-bots barely clears the solvability bar of a Scooby-Doo plotline, and the tragic backstory provided for the bad guy is depressingly generic. (Can we go back for a while to having villains who are mean just … ’cause?)
As for Baymax’s motive for helping young Hiro retrieve his lost invention, it’s just altruism, a selfless (albeit software-based) drive to keep the boy as healthy and happy as possible. I’m not sure we can impute that level of altruism to Disney/Marvel’s relationship with the kids who are Big Hero 6’s target audience. These two entertainment behemoths (joined into a single unholy entity by the former’s 2009 acquisition of the latter) may come at our progeny with their cute puffy arms extended for a hug, but they’re not planning on releasing them from that embrace anytime soon.