When Disney acquired Marvel in 2009, there was an awful lot of gnashing of teeth from long-time Marvel fans who feared that Disney would so de-fang their beloved comic book heroes for the sake of mainstream palatability that they would rob those characters of whatever made them special in the first place. And that did happen, but not in the way that anybody expected, and not to the detriment that had been so widely predicted. It didn’t happen with one of the Disney’s many, many MCU blockbusters, but in an animated movie that adapted a relatively obscure and unsuccessful Marvel property that would see far greater success once projected through a Disney lens. And that movie is the sci-fi superhero tale about how compassion is stronger than violence: Big Hero 6.
The story takes place in the futuristic and multicultural metropolis of San Fransokyo, where young robotics prodigy Hiro Hamada wastes his days competing in an illegal robot fighting circuit. His big brother Tadashi—no slouch in robot-design, either—tries to give Hiro a little direction and shows him around the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology, where Tadashi studies. The experience fires up Hiro, who scores a scholarship after successfully demonstrating his groundbreaking invention: a kind of swarmable, mentally controlled microbots. But after the demonstration, a fire erupts out at the exhibit hall, and Tadashi loses his life while trying to get people out of the building. Despondent, Hiro discovers an inflatable healthcare/wellness robot Tadashi designed called Baymax. For Hiro, Baymax is a kind of surrogate for his departed brother, but he is also helps Hiro discover Tadashi’s killer—a mysterious figure in a kabuki mask named Yokai who stole and weaponized Hiro’s microbots into a formidable super power. Out of his depth, Hiro recruits Tadashi’s college friends—Go Go, Wasabi, Honey Lemon and Fred—to pool their resources and build the super tech they’ll need to stop Yokai. But the more Hiro comes to depend on Baymax, the more he loses sight of why Baymax was built in the first place, and the more he risks forgetting Tadashi’s legacy.
First things first: readers of the Big Hero 6 comic will scarcely recognize those pages in this movie. All of the characters have been substantially changed. The backstory has been rewritten. The tone has been lightened and brightened. If ever there was a case that the movie adaptation left its source material behind, it is here. And you know what? That’s alright, because the adaptation is such a satisfying and compelling take on the superhero genre—complete with a wonderful post-credits scene to remind us of its Marvel roots—that it doesn’t matter what its origins are. It’s the kind of movie that meets punches with hugs. It’s the kind of movie that asks you if you have been satisfied with your care, and you will be unable to say anything but a tearful yes.
Visually, Big Hero 6 deserves special mention for its visual appeal, even among the sky-high expectations set by recent Disney and Pixar movies. San Fransokyo is a wondrous city of tomorrow that looks but familiar and strange. The character design employs a solid, chunky aesthetic that really delivers on the promise of 3D animation and giving us a feeling of an entire world of action figures come to life. And the sheer density of detail and fineness of motion in every single second of Big Hero 6’s run time proves that the resources Disney poured into inventing new animation technologies to make this movie was all very well spent, indeed.
But the core of this movie is its story and the characters who drive it. And while things may begin on a grimly familiar Disney note—the death of a close family member—the real dynamic here is between Hiro and Baymax. A simple balloon bot designed by Tadashi to provide not just first aid, but a kind of wholesome bedside manner that seems to have vanished from modern medicine, Baymax is a study in contradictions. He is supremely able to care for others, but his body is so easily damaged it would seem that he needs another Baymax himself to keep the first one running. And then another Baymax for that, and so on and so on until it’s Baymaxes all the way down. But Baymax’s every action and mannerism—from his gentleness towards others to his friendly cluelessness to his mild-mannered but relentless pursuit to help others—provides us with the moral center of this story.
Baymax delivers more than a few sweet and funny scenes, but for a guy who isn’t exactly a traditional action hero, he has a couple of really heroic moments as well, including one involving his signature rocket gauntlet that exemplifies what it means to sacrifice something for the sake of another. It’s as heroic as any moment in any other superhero movie, only it rings a little more true because of the way in which Baymax seeks only to ease the pain in others, no matter who they may be.
The moment of truth comes in a pivotal scene when Hiro discovers who Yokai really is, and how Tadashi really died. Enraged, Hiro fully overrides Tadashi’s programming that Baymax do no harm to anyone. Hiro sends the fully weaponized Baymax after Yokai and what follows is a gut-wrenching sequence in which we have never been so sad to see the full extent of a hero’s power. By the end of it, disaster is barely averted because Baymax is finally allowed to be himself once again, and it isn’t a violent avenger. Hiro realizes what kind of line he has crossed, but Baymax’s response is not to hold a grudge or to lecture, but to his own memories of Tadashi, which remind Hiro of who Tadashi really was, and why he really mattered. Baymax knows that with great power comes great responsibility. But he also knows something more important than that: Love wins. Love always wins.