Silver Screen: Big Hero Six ***
Big Hero Six is a Japanophile’s dream— literally.
The computer-animated feature, based on an obscure, recently revamped Marvel Comics property, is a fanciful daydream mashup of American superhero and Japanese manga tropes. The story takes place in the alternate-world city of San Fransokyo, which has the topography of San Francisco refashioned with Japanese architecture and décor: Pagoda roofs, blossoming cherry trees, and the occasional punctuation of a neon-tinged Tokyo skyscraper. It’s an interesting literalization of the film’s style, which applies a stylistically muted anime aesthetic to a classic American superhero story— look closely at one character’s family portrait and you’ll recognize the grinning father as Stan Lee.
Big Hero Six is a fun kids’ flick with all the nutritional value of a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. It’s more enamored with gags and sci-fi technofetishism than story, and the tones are so brightly candy-colored they could cause tooth decay. But like that box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, it’s pretty enjoyable while you’re consuming it.
Hiro (voiced by young actor Ryan Potter) is a brainy orphan who graduated from high school at age thirteen and now lives with his generically kooky aunt (Maya Rudolph). Hiro receives a heaping helping of Mighty Marvel pathos, getting not just a matched set of dead parents but a slain brother as well. His beloved older bro Tadashi (Daniel Henney) is killed in a fire during a high-tech science fair, and worse, Hiro suspects the fire was started as a cover to steal his own revolutionary new invention.
Tadashi left behind a creation of his own, a big, soft, huggable healthcare-dispensing robot named Baymax (Scott Adsit). He’s designed to be sweet and non-threatening, which makes him an especially unlikely ass-kicker when Hiro repurposes him as a fighting-robot sidekick. With his help of his brother’s science-geek friends, including racer Go-Go (Jamie Chung), laser specialist Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), prissy Honey Lemon (Génesis Rodríguez), and goofball mascot Fred (T.J. Miller), Hiro and Baymax must find out who killed Tadashi and what plans they have for Hiro’s stolen science project.
The cast is impressive, mostly in that it’s not choked with needless celebrities (Tracy Morgan plays a dog who barks twice, Vin Diesel mumbles, et cetera), yet the noteworthy voices are well-chosen: James Cromwell as Tadashi’s scientist mentor, the consistently funny Wayans and Miller, and the always-welcome Alan Tudyk as a villainous industrialist. Thirty Rock’s Adsit gets most of the laughs with his gentle, deadpan delivery as Baymax, who’s only programmed to be calm, even in the direst situations.
At its worst, Big Hero Six feels like an episode of a pretty-good TV cartoon series stretched to feature length. At its best, it’s a quick fix for fans jonesing for an Incredibles sequel or a pop-culture-reference joke machine like The Lego Movie or Wreck-it Ralph. It’s no game changer, but it plays the game well enough. The hybrid world of American and Japanese culture is its most distinctive feature, and provides a unique texture and interesting background details to look at when the story drags. And despite the ongoing glut of superhero movies, which shows no signs of abating, at least this one has a sense of whimsy.
Though not terribly ambitious, Big Hero Six does sport a kinetic climax with a trippy visual payoff. That coupled with enough solid jokes to keep you chuckling throughout make for a pleasant experience. Is it good for you? Probably not. But it’s pretty sweet.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.