Friday, November 7, 2014

BIG HERO 6 - How to Train Your Robot

The best superhero stories are, in actuality, about internal conflicts. In spite of the razzle-dazzle of super powers, strange creatures, other-worldly invasions, and science fiction marvels, the action in these tales is best used to mirror and drive the inner struggles of the protagonist. Whether it's Spider-man's struggle with responsibility and guilt, the X-men's bid for acceptance from society at large because they have trouble enough accepting themselves, or Mr. Incredible's mid-life crisis, that's what these movies are really about, even when it looks like a guy in a mask fighting a villain on a bridge.

Big Hero 6 understands this, and while its surface is a basic superhero team yarn celebrating science and the power of friendship, it's actually about a boy's struggle against grief and helpless rage.

Big Hero 6 has been playing a bit of a sly game with its marketing, position the incredibly "toyetic" robot Baymax and his "getting upgrades" interactions with teenaged Hiro front and center in all its advertising - at least, in the original trailers, only to tip their hand in later ads.

The story is set in San Fransokyo (the visual and sci-fi tech aesthetic of which sounds exactly like you'd expect with that name). In the film, Baymax is a healthcare android created by Tadashi, Hiro's older brother. The boys, orphaned more than ten years before the start of the movie, live with their aunt and are well-established early-on as what I call a functionally-dysfunctional unit, with Tadashi trying to convince Hiro (who graduated high school early and is killing time with illegal bot fighting) to enroll in San Fransokyo University, mostly to keep him out of trouble.
But then Tadashi dies in an accident the same night that Hiro unveils a radical new invention, and Hiro is left with only his out-of-her-depth Aunt Cass and his much-older friends from SFU, none of whom he feels much desire to turn to. Instead, it's Baymax, Tadashi's creation literally built to care for people, that starts Hiro on both the road to reconciliation and self-actualization. This leads to the discovery of a masked ne'er-do-well using Hiro's invention for sinister purposes, then to the decision to put a stop to this super villain - first by turning Baymax from a fluffy nursebot to an armored karate master, and later by outfitting Hiro's SFU friends with tech-based super powers of their own.

The film takes its time in getting to the "building the super-team" part of the story, and then proceeds to breeze right through a lot of "standard" beats that the genre usually revels in, but that's because these are the means to a very diliberate end. Just as Gogo, Honey Lemon, Wasabi, and Fred all sign on to "suit up" more to help Hiro than to BE heroes, the movie is very concerned using these story beats to examine Hiro's emotional journey. At the center is Baymax, a labor of love who literally embodies Tadashi's ingenuity and empathy, who's sole interest in this superhero business is helping to improve Hiro's emotional state. There are some heavy scenes where these intentions get undermined, going to places that feel scary because of how well they reflect the howling turmoil of senseless loss, and a couple moments that come near the beginning and near the end of the film hit wit some serious "Pixar at the top of their game" weight..

(Side note: in many ways, this feels like the best Spider-man movie since Raimi's Spider-man 2 ten years ago - a teenaged orphan, living with an aunt, struggling to reconcile the loss of a mentor and a gift that could be easily misused, who through science and circumstance becomes a hero and reject destruction in favor of selflessness. It even has the whooping joy and a bit of the quippy humor of Spidey's best comic stories.)

The character work for Hiro's central arc is so elegant that one really wishes a bit more time could have been spent with the supporting cast. As touching as it is that the SFU gang is willing to help him out, it feels like they deserved a few more scenes to develop on their own terms instead of largely serving Hiro and Baymax's narrative. With about ten more minutes of meaty character work, this movie might have been able to match The Incredibles, but it doesn't quite get there.

Of course, "not as good as The Incredibles" is hardly a knock (what's the opposite of "damning with faint praise?"), and Big Hero 6 definitively makes for the fourth great superhero movie to be released this year. The action is fresh and fast and fun while hewing to character rather than escalating spectacle, and the same can be said of the humor. And this is yet another example of world-building in simply, unobtrusive ways that give texture and life to the film without bogging it down in tedious exposition, letting the world live instead of be explained.

And if the worst I can say about this film is that I desperately wanted more time in this world and with these characters, someone's doing their job right.

(Additional Side note: make sure you stay to through the end of the credits - this is technically a Marvel movie, after all.)

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