MOVIE REVIEW: Big Hero 6

  (Image: www.imdb.com)

(Image: www.imdb.com)

"BIG HERO 6"-- 4 STARS

When The Walt Disney Company bought Marvel Entertainment in 2009, I think a good chunk of comic and movie fans feared the worst.  Sure, the creative possibilities were (and are) endless when you think about it, and making a hit should be easy on paper.  However, not all of that is good for traditionalists and comic canon.  Not all of what Marvel creates belongs under the Disney umbrella.  Disney has its niche, but so does Marvel and they are not always in the same ballpark.

The Disney marketing machine is well known for exploiting, over-exposing, and beating brands to death in the name of making gobs of money hand over fist from both film and infinite merchandising.  That's great for the bottom line and selling stock, but not great for artistic and creative integrity.  Disney does not need that, but Marvel does.  People feared that Marvel would lose some of its pulpy roots and occasionally sharp edge if their content and canon was watered down to fly in the straight and narrow within Disney's fairly strict family-friendly standards.

Some of it will work, but some of it won't.  I mean, come on, have you seen how sexy some of those Marvel ladies dress?  It would make Ariel and her sea-shell bikini blush.  Do you really think we could have a beefy, but cuddly actor portraying the fully-armed Punisher walking around theme parks next to princesses and Goofy for photo ops?  You could, maybe in some redneck red state, but not around middle and upper class parents on vacation.  You can't tell them it’s a Nerf gun.

For the creative merging of Marvel and Disney to work right, they needed the right story and set of characters from the Marvel catalog.  The big-time superheroes like “The Avengers” are raking in millions in live-action blockbusters.  That’s where they belong.  No one needs a Pixar Incredible Hulk.  That’s not the place for him.  To get the best animated hit, Disney needed something new and fresh, yet clever and approachable for a kid-aged audience.  They needed something that can be just theirs and not something shared with the adults.  Disney and Marvel have done just that and struck gold with “Big Hero 6.”

“Big Hero 6” has comic roots on the fringe of the Marvel Universe dating as far back as 1998.  The title centers around a quirky roster mostly comprised of teens with stories fit for kid-level adventures and the occasional team-up with the likes of Spider-Man and The X-Men.  Similar to the way they tapped the obscure “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Disney has found a fresh palette of something most people, other than ardent comic fans, haven’t heard of.  “Big Hero 6” is more youthful than muscular and now represents the 54th animated feature from Walt Disney Pictures.

Young Hiro Hamada (voiced by Nickelodeon star Ryan Potter) is a 14-year-old child prodigy that has already graduated high school in San Fransokyo (a clever take on San Francisco overrun by Asian design and culture).  Hiro’s genius interests are in robotics and he sneaks out at night to do back alley robot fighting for money, much to the chagrin of his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and adopted aunt Cass (Maya Rudoplh).  Tadashi pulls Hiro aside and introduces him what he and his friends accomplish at the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology with cutting edge inventions and Tadashi’s own work with robotics.  His special project is an inflatable and artificially intelligent medical care provider named Baymax (voiced by former “30 Rock” co-star Scott Adsit).  The mentoring older brother tries to push Hiro to take the college route and join a place where his introverted talents have the right place to succeed. 

Tadashi helps Hiro prepare a dynamic new “microbot” technology that they both hope will impress Professor Callaghan (James Cromwell), the head of robotics, and gain Hiro entry into the prestigious school.  When a tragic accident besets Hiro and the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology at a tech show, Hiro and Tadashi’s classmates rise up to take on a new villain in a Kabuki mask named Yokai that has stolen Hiro’s microbots and threatened technology magnate Alistair Krei (veteran voice star Alan Tudyk).  Hiro uses his design skill to modify Baymax into a fighting machine and gives Tadashi’s classmates unique tools and suits to make them into a team of rag-tag superheroes that echo the old Ben Stiller-led “Mystery Men.”

Fred (comedian T.J. Miller), the slacker school mascot and comic book fan, takes on a fire-shooting dragon persona.  The cautious and neurotic Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.) converts his laser-cutting technology turned into arm blades.  Cutesy chemistry whiz Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) gets a posh purse that creates and distributes her chemical orbs.  Action junkie GoGo (Jamie Chung) shifts her electromagnetic wheel axles from a bicycle invention into wheeled shoes that speed her around.  Together with Hiro and Baymax, they are your “Big Hero 6.”

From an animation standpoint, the CGI technology continues to improve with every feature film from Walt Disney Studios.  They are quickly becoming no longer second fiddle to their sister company of Pixar.  I couldn’t help but notice the perfect reflections on glass and the look and movement of textures like water, wind, smoke, and metal.  Disney can create and hold their own with the best Pixar can muster and has been outperforming them of late, thanks to “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Frozen.”  The clever attention to design that splashes the Bay Area with an extra layer of Asian flair was a nice touch that will catch your eye over and over with something new to see in establishing shots and peripheral detail.  It’s no longer a difference of megabytes to kilobytes.  You will get your money’s worth.

What really wins is the story and Disney picked a winner.  Brimming with fun humor, busy action, and imaginative science, “Big Hero 6” will probably be the coolest thing your teens and pre-teens have seen since “The Lego Movie.”  This might even rank for the older kids to be even cooler than that since Legos are sometimes seen as just for little kids.  The film hits all of the right buttons to combine Disney heart with Marvel adventure.  The two brands have found and created some instantly likeable and loveable characters.  The character of Baymax alone will make your entire day. 

Sure, “Big Hero 6” is a little frenetic with pace and logic and is terrifically predictable, but what Disney movie isn’t to a certain extent?  The most important thing is that it entertains.  The second most important thing is that it sells toys.  “Big Hero 6” will and does plenty of both.  Come early and, as tradition, catch an adorable animated short film named “Feast” (first look preview) surrounding a dog’s love of food and his owner that will elicit parental shirt-tugging and new puppy love.  Stay after the credits and you’ll be treated even more to, arguably, the best Stan Lee cameo yet in a Marvel-based film.  Altogether, you’ve got the makings of an instant marketing bonanza and new franchise springboard with “Big Hero 6.”

LESSON #1: PUBERTY CREATES COMPLETELY AWKWARD BOYS—Thanks to Hiro, we get the classic woes of pubescent boys.  All the hallmarks are here, including the sense of invincibility, the conflict of interests, the shyness around girls, the boredom with school, the mood swings, the destructive and self-destructive tendencies, and the angst.  Hiro doesn't have it easy either as a prodigy who has to jump up to a world of people older than him.  Not having solid parents around doesn't help either.  As brilliant as he is, the young man is still flawed and susceptible to screw-ups.

LESSON #2: NERDS MAKE COOL SUPERHEROES—This isn't just for “Big Hero 6,” but nerds make the coolest superheroes.  They are the best because they use their smarts to make themselves better than the cheerleaders, supermodels, jocks, and alpha males that get by on muscles and looks.  Brains work over brawn, even though brawn comes in handy.  Peter Parker and Clark Kent are newspaper dorks.  Batman gets by on invention and gadgets with no superpowers.  The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, The Hulk, and The Flash are all scientists in some regard.  These robotic school college students in “Big Hero 6” only add more fuel to the nerd fire.  I guess we need to keep watching “The Big Bang Theory” more than “America’s Next Top Model.”

LESSON #3: S.T.E.M. IS THE FUTURE OF EDUCATION FOR THIS GENERATION OF YOUTHS—I’m going to get crap from my co-workers and colleagues on this one, but I’m biased and I’m plugging work.  When I’m not writing movie reviews, I’m an instructional coach for a STEM-focused and college preparatory charter school network.  That cutting edge is where it’s at.  I know all too well how fascinating, inspiring, tangible, and useful science, technology, math, and engineering are in today’s education realm and future workplace.  We need more kids to embrace those nerdy disciplines and not just watch TV and hope to be singers and athletes.  Heck, you might just become a superhero thanks to STEM. 

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