Flat "Big Hero 6" Buoyed By Inflatable Robot

Baymax, the white, inflatable robot-nurse turned superhero that headlines Disney Animation’s “Big Hero 6” is a keeper. Voiced by Scott Adsit (NBC’s “30 Rock”), the portly orb is a shrewd blend of cuddly and clever, childlike and paternal. His dotted eyes and blank torso are the perfect canvas on which to project a wide range of emotions – grief and humor chief among them – lending the project all the potential in the world. The character is a windfall of laughs, emotion, and merchandising potential – in short, a marketer’s dream.

But where “Big Hero 6” hits with its star, it misses badly in most other respects, ostensibly scripted by that same marketing team and subsequently focus-grouped to death. The film’s five credited writers and two directors have surrounded their lovable hero with a cast of charisma-free human characters and a story that reads like a discarded Marvel Comics storyline – which it sort of is. Based on Marvel’s largely unknown Big Hero 6 series, the film marks Disney’s first foray into animated superheroes since they acquired the juggernaut comics company in 2009. Their toe is in the pool but the water is decidedly tepid.

Ryan Potter voices lead Hiro Hamada, an impressionable 14 year-old with a penchant for robotics. His older brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney), is a student in the field, having developed Baymax as a nursing prototype. The tirelessly friendly bot is equipped to analyze and treat the most common of human injuries and illnesses, all while remaining adorably oblivious to the idiosyncrasies of mankind. For example, the film gets lots of mileage from his interpretation of the fist bump.

Inspired by Baymax and the rest of his brother’s work, Hiro dreams up the microbot – a tiny automaton that can be neurologically manipulated to combine with other microbots, forming elaborate, sweeping structures in the blink of an eye. Two pieces of external conflict are haphazardly thrown into the mix, with Tadashi being killed in a lab fire and Hiro having his technology stolen from him. The rest of the film sees Hiro and Baymax join forces with Tadashi’s friends to unmask the Kabuki-wearing thief.

TJ Miller is the standout of the pic’s voice actors, fitting in naturally as Fred, the loopy misfit of the group, but the character is as much a non-entity as Hiro and his co-horts, the others voiced by Damon Wayans Jr., Genesis Rodriguez, and Jamie Chung. James Cromwell plays a significant role as Tadashi’s professor, but it’s an unnatural fit with little payoff. The character gets lost in the fluff, buried beneath pages of ineffectual exposition.

Halfway through, Hiro and his friends discover that Fred is the son of obscenely wealthy parents, either a knowing jab at other superhero yarns, a lazy plot point, or both. Once they’ve anointed themselves superheroes, aided by Fred’s stash of comic book memorabilia, they traverse a curiously empty city in search of a villain who’s done an exceptionally poor job of covering his tracks. As such, the film’s world feels small and weightless, only made interesting by the reliable presence of an adorable robot.

Ultimately “Big Hero 6” is a mish-mash of mixed messages, from its “compassion over violence, through violence” finale to its clumsily appropriated Japanese stylistic flourishes. The film’s futuristic metropolis is actually referred to as San Fransokyo, which might be offensive if it weren’t so confusing, and the nods to manga (Japanese comics) are half-hearted. The climax hinges on the rescue of a character we haven’t met, making clear that the movie’s kitchen has reached maximum capacity. Cooks abound but the recipes simply aren’t there, leaving only one question – is the film colorful and exciting enough for its target audience?

Baymax alone should keep the attention of most children, but this writer’s particular showing was dotted with cries of “Where did the robot go?” whenever he left the screen. Baymax at his low-battery best – slurring his speech and flailing about – is alone worth the price of admission, but for all he brings to the table, “Big Hero 6” is startlingly flat – a void of personality in a film whose most human character isn’t human at all.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: November 7, 2014
Studio: Walt Disney Animation Studios
Director: Don Hall, Chris Williams
Screenwriter: Jordan Roberts, Daniel Gerson, Robert L. Baird, Paul Briggs, Joe Mateo
Starring: Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, T.J. Miller, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans Jr., Genesis Rodriguez, Maya Rudolph, James Cromwell, Alan Tudyk, Daniel Henney
MPAA Rating: PG (for action and peril, some rude humor, and thematic elements)