Big Hero 6 marks several firsts for Disney. It's the first time the company has produced a film based on Marvel characters, since it now owns them as parent company of Marvel Enterntainment. It also marks the use of brand new animation software created specifically for the production of the film. It also marks the first time since the advent of the MCU that I've had to wait to see a Marvel-based film longer than people in the States. Marvel, Sony and Fox movies typically arrive at the same time in the UK as in the States, if not some days before. It's one of those small things I can take smug pleasure in. Not this time though; I've been waiting to see this since November.
It's also my first real exposure to the Big Hero 6 property, and I am certainly not unusual there. The superteam is not one of Marvel's best known properties, and while I was aware of its existence, I have not once read a copy of Sunfire & Big Hero 6, or even encountered them guesting in another comic. The only members of their changing roster that I'm familiar with are Sunfire and Silver Samurai, whose film rights, as X-Men characters, now belong to Sony, not Disney/Marvel. So I came to this with fewer expectations or preconceptions than I usually do for a Marvel-based movie. I do realise that the characters and concept have been changed a good deal for the film, and it seems that this is a very loose adaptation of the source material. For one thing, for a story based on Japanese characters with Japanese names, set in a Japanese-influenced world, this is a very American and distinctly Caucasian presentation. It's understandable that Japanese fans of the original comics aren't terribly happy about this. Indeed, there seem to be fewer Asian people in San Fransokyo than in the real San Francisco.
None of this matters to 95% of the audience, who are coming to this anew expecting a big, American, family-friendly blockbuster. Which, to be fair, is exactly what they get. Big Hero 6 is a fabulous example of of what modern Disney does best, a funny and heartwarming story brought to vivid life with the latest techniques in animation. It's the funniest film I've seen in a long time, perfectly hitting the point that makes both children and so-called adults laugh. It's a Disney film, though, so it's also no surprise that the laughs and action are balanced by some genuinely upsetting scenes. Disney have never shied away from showing the harder lessons of life alongside their fantasy, and Big Hero 6 is no exception. While on the one hand it's pure wish-fulfilment – what child hasn't wanted to be a superhero? - it's also a heartfelt message on the value of friendship and how to cope with death.
Hiro Hamada is the aptly-named protagonist, a fourteen-year-old boy with a preternatural grasp of robotics that he shares with his elder brother, Tadashi. Hiro is voiced by Ryan Potter, who sounds too old for the role but makes Hiro immensely likeable, even when he's being a cocky little sod. After the tragic and suspicious death of his brother and mentor during the unveiling of his newest creation – microbots – Hiro is driven to form his own superhero team with his inventor friends. The characters are off-the-peg caricatures, but they work, easy to grasp characters that work as a fun team to keep the plot ticking along quickly. GoGo is quick-mouthed and full of attitude, so she develops super-speedy wheels; Honey Lemon is a cheerful, hippy-ish chemist who creates super-sticky and explosive gumballs; Fred is the only non-scientist, a chilled-out stoner who supplies the money and dresses up in a fire-breathing monster suit. The best of the team is T. J. Miller's character, Wasabi (I used to know an orang utan named Wasabi. True fact.) On the face of it the clichéd muscular, physical character, armed with laser knives, he's actually the most timid, sensible and cool-headed of the group.
The real hero of the film, however, is Baymax (indeed, the film is titled Baymax in most non-English-speaking markets). A tubby, inflatable robot designed for medical care, Baymax looks most like a futuristic update of Mr. Stay Puft or the Michelin Man, but he's portrayed as a simple-minded but huge-hearted companion who knows that the best medicine is often a hug. Baymax is softly voiced by Scott Adsit, whose performance, along with the excellent animation, moves the character beyond his almost featureless appearance to become the most loveable character I've seen in a long while. Other fine star turns come from genre stalwarts Alan Tudyk and James Cromwell, not to forget Maya Rudolph as Hiro's kooky aunt. (Of course he's an orphan; he's a Disney character and a comicbook hero, he didn't really have much chance of having parents.)
What's so appealing about the Big Hero 6 is that they're so utterly hopeless as superheroes until their final act. They're a kind of inverse Avengers: they're perfectly suited as a team but have no idea how to use their individual gifts. Nonetheless, they come together brilliantly in the end, against the Yokai, a truly chilling villain. The action scenes are as good as anything seen in live action comicbook movies. Big Hero 6 is a perfect kids' superhero film. Plus, it has Stan Lee's greatest cameo ever.