If there’s any question about where Walt Disney Studios sees its future, gander at the family portrait in the mansion home of earnest slacker-fanboy Fred (voiced by T.J. Miller) about halfway through “Big Hero 6” (named for the merchandise-friendly superhero group loosely based on a minor Marvel Comics team). In one of those wink-wink gags that makes chaperones think they’re seeing a more sophisticated cartoon (a technique perfected at Disney subsidiary Pixar, whose majordomo John Lasseter exec produces here, as with all current Disney-branded animation), Fred’s dad is none other than Marvel Comics (another Disney subsidiary) godfather Stan Lee. Not old Walt, the long-deceased studio founder who wired Mickey Mouse, Bambi and Snow White into our communal consciousness. Message to incubating fanboys everywhere? Disney’s world is Stan Lee’s going forward. (And in case the portrait joke is too subtle, there’s an amusing post-credits sequence that most of my Saturday morning screening audience missed, with Stan the Man in the animated “flesh.”)
Under the direction of Don Hall and Chris Williams, the first half shows promise: Set in a beautifully rendered near-future hybrid city called San Fransokyo (rhymes, perhaps intentionally, with “Pinocchio,” another film in the Disney catalog), a sort of happy counterpart to the Los Angeles 2019 of “Blade Runner,” the precocious young orphan (of course) and his older brother seek adventures not in the jungle or in exotic lands, but in the world of technology. The tactically hybrid Amerasian main characters are “nerds,” the new heroes of our time, and, it seems the conflicts they’ll grapple with are realistic battles between science for knowledge’s sake and science for financial stakes. It’s a delightful fusion of contemporary, manga-fueled concerns as well as fantastic fantasy leaps in robotics (the list of scientific consultants thanked in the credits is quite impressive) that, at that point, indicates we’re watching a promising new kind of Disney film.
Alas, act two digresses into a story arc, complete with an “It’s a Small World” lineup of boy and girl heroes and overlong battle sequences all-too-familiar to anyone who’s spent time with the superhero culture, as a tragic turn sure to make the death of Bambi’s mom seem palatable by cartoon comparison shifts the whole thing into a very conventional superhero tale. But is it familiar yet to the kiddies Disney targets? Perhaps it’s a wholly-conscious ploy to cultivate audiences of the future to keep the superhero gravy train flowing forever?
It’s kind of a shame because there’s compelling material here. The robot character, Baymax (voiced by Scott Adsit), is an interesting creation not just in form—he looks like a marshmallow man—but also in content: he was created for humanitarian reasons, to be a sort of 360-degree health monitor for his ward—including mental health, as the plot addresses grief and its physical as well as emotional implications.
This is a spoiler for those concerned about such things, but the morality of the villain’s identity and motivations are particularly hard to reconcile. He turns out to be the science-for-science’s sake professor, rather than the money-grubbing entrepreneur everyone expected. I guess, for Disney, that sentiment makes perfect sense. (Brian Hieggelke)
“Big Hero 6” opens Friday, November 7 in 3D.