While Pixar’s taking a year off from their annual Oscar-guaranteed features, 2014 became an impressive testing ground for other studios to come out with genuinely impressive and groundbreaking animated fare. The Lego Movie was an endlessly creative and refreshing take on breaking through the limits of the medium as it took bold chances with such a hacky concept.
How To Train Your Dragon 2 accomplished the impossible as it delivered a sequel even better than the crowd-pleasing first outing as it focused on a more daring darker tone and more expansive world-building and ended up crossing over from kids’ entertainment into a more adult big-budget fantasy epic.
With these formidable animated accomplishments already turning 2014 into a great year for animated features, it’s only fitting that it ends with one of the most exciting, colorful, heartwarming, gloriously exuberant and insanely entertaining animated films in recent memory. I would go as far to state that Big Hero 6 is the best animated superhero movie since The Incredibles. Yes, you heard that right, and I say that without a hint of hyperbole.
Big Hero 6 is an inventive mix of The Incredibles, The Iron Giant, and pretty much every anime ever made that caters to a younger audience, meaning no androids with giant boobs as well as a welcome lack of tentacle porn.
The film is based on a popular Marvel comic, making it an official Marvel co-production even though the characters or the story doesn’t connect to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s about a child prodigy and robotics genius named Hiro, who, after a sudden tragic loss in the family, confides in his older brother’s invention of a soft and irresistibly huggable healthcare robot called Baymax in order to deal with his grief.
When Hiro finds out that the tragedy previously thought to be an accident was in fact part of a nefarious conspiracy being perpetrated by a mysterious evil figure hiding behind a Kabuki ghost mask and his army of microscopic robots that bend to his will, he creates a group of nerd superheroes to stop the villain to hopefully find some closure to his sorrow.
Obviously inspired by visually exuberant and tech-heavy style of Japanese anime while being also obligated to cater to a Western audience, Big Hero 6 finds the perfect balance between these two distinct approaches to animation. It mostly elevates the material that works best in either style while perhaps inadvertently managing to tone down some elements that I always found annoying in both Japanese and American animation.
The intensely fun and exuberantly colorful visual style full of dynamic, fast-paced action set pieces that would feel right at home in a traditional childrens’ anime are all here, minus the overreliance on exaggerated slapstick and cloying whimsy. On the other hand, even though the story sports a more traditionally American action-adventure/superhero structure, it’s filled with enough creativity derived from a loyalty to the Japanese material that inspired it, that it doesn’t feel as cynical and soulless as many other big-budget cash grab animated features plopped out by Hollywood studios in order to make a quick buck so mommy and daddy can distract the little ones for a couple of hours. Even the location, an alluring mash-up of San Francisco and Tokyo called San Fransokyo takes full advantage of this cultural blend.
For even the lightest connoisseur of anime and superhero movies, most of the story beats will be predictable. However, Big Hero 6’s charm doesn’t come from an attempt to reinvent the genre, but from how creatively it assembles the kind of scenes we’ve all seen before.
For example, a car chase near the midpoint of the film where our heroes drive away from the main villain could have been yawn-inducingly standard, yet it manages to end up as a genuinely exciting sequence thanks to inventive character development and some original visual touches. The microbots that the bad guy uses to chase Hiro and his team look like the unholy Lego version of the smoke monster from Lost and is a hell of a lot more interesting to look at than the usual missiles and projectiles used by cookie-cutter villains during such scenes.
Even though Big Hero 6’s aspirations to create a kick-ass superhero adventure are obvious (Hell, it’s even in the title), the real focus is on the touching relationship between Hiro and Baymax, which is where The Iron Giant comparisons kick in. The honest way their blossoming friendship is handled should create an apt outlet for child audiences to deal with their own loss and grief.
Scott Adsit is a comedian mostly known for his role as a neurotic producer in 30 Rock. His gentle and heartwarming voice work in bringing Baymax to life is a wonder to behold. Next to Groot, I’m expecting Baymax to become the most popular cuddly animated character of the year, which my cynical mind equates to a buttload of cash for Disney from merchandising alone.