The new animated action-adventure "Big Hero 6" might sound like more of the same Marvel-inspired superhero stuff already saturating movie theaters with its flashy 3-D animation and futuristic nerd kids doing their world saving in bright plastic-plated armor and spiffy Spanx.
Which it might have become, if not for the big guy, the awwww-inspiring Baymax.
This towering, huggable, robotic bag of air and brains steals the show and probably seals a franchise. Baymax, who looks like the love child of the Pillsbury Doughboy and the Michelin Man, also represents another interesting evolution in the kind of animation we can expect from Disney.
Based on a little-known comic pulled from Marvel's apparently endless vaults, directors Don Hall and Chris Williams create a smart, forward-thinking and yet emotionally old-fashioned world. Like the video-gaming battles in the 2012 Disney hit "Wreck-It Ralph," "Big Hero 6" is a little edgier, its humor a little grittier and its sensibility very 21st century, setting it on a different path than the studio's classic fairy tale staples. Screenwriters Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson and Jordan Roberts handled the adaptation, expanding and embellishing the origin comic.
The film is very clear about its international influences. It starts with "Big Hero 6's" pan-Pacific setting, the city of San Fransokyo, a hybrid of San Francisco and Tokyo in landmarks as well as name. It extends through the animation itself, a mash-up of old-school style and Japanese manga. While all the mushing and mixing make for images that seem to leap off the screen, the subtext is that the future will be multicultural and the sensibility pop, so get over it.
Thank Fall Out Boy for some of that snap. Though the band's new track "Immortals" won't hit "Frozen's" chart-crushing "Let It Go" (which for parents may be a blessing), it fits the punk genius at the story's center, a 14-year-old robotics whiz kid named Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter). It also fuses well with composer Henry Jackman's ("Captain America: The Winter Soldier") synth-inflected orchestral score.
The film begins, as so many of these origin stories do, with the parentless boy destined for greatness. At 14, Hiro's already graduated from high school, but instead of college he's applying his high-tech savvy to building a better back-alley fighting bot.
He's got sweet Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph) making sure there's a roof over his head and food on the table. But older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney), who spends his days with a smart circle of scientific brainiacs at San Fransokyo Tech, worries that Hiro is headed toward trouble.
Tadashi gets Hiro to tag along to Tech one day to see what he'd miss by skipping college. Between all the gizmos being ginned up and the demonstration of Tadashi's invention, Baymax, a touchy-feely care-giving medical robot designed to read moods as easily as vitals, the boy wonder starts thinking perhaps there is more to life than street-fighting bots.
Hiro's bid to be accepted into the prestigious school lies in impressing professor Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell), so he creates a mind-controlled microbot — well, zillions of them, which swirl like magnetized metal shards into whatever the teen telepathically instructs. The microbots can morph into a building, a bridge, and in the wrong hands — perhaps a global robotics mogul like Alistair Krei (Alan Tudyk) — are an unbeatable weapon. They make for some of the film's best visuals, impossible to pull off without animation that mesmerizes.
To take Hiro from smart boy to superhero, calamity must fall. It does right in the middle of Hiro's demonstration at an elaborate science fair. As impressive as the morphing microbots are, the explosive destruction of the fair is tailor-made for animators to go crazy, and "Big Hero 6's" massive crew does.
In the wake of the fair's ruin, Hiro and Baymax are thrown together to, as all superheroes must, seek justice, unmask villains, solve mysteries. Hiro enlists four of his brother's friends to help (and to make six big heroes). They include Fred (T.J. Miller), the resident slacker who may be more than he seems; GoGo Tomago (Jamie Chung), sarcasm and spinning wheels are her specialty; Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), kind of a Wolverine with dreads, a paunch and slightly different but no-less-lethal blades; and Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), your basic chemistry chick in short skirts and glasses.
Hiro has all the right stuff to be the leader, while Baymax's huge hugs carry as much power as his punch. And as comic book mythology demands, these superheroes have their own special attire. Hiro pushes the soft-touch Baymax into a "slimming" new plastic suit that offers power and protection. But inside it Bay loses some of his charm.
That charm is substantial, and should the big boy return for future adventures, Disney might rethink the styling.
While a robot designed to be the ultimate medical caregiver might not sound like the right superhero stuff, from the first time Baymax pops up from his container like an inflatable jack in the box (the real deal, not the fast food franchise namesake), he's irrepressible and irresistible.
Surprisingly, some of the attraction is Baymax's synthesized voice. So annoying when it's a telemarketer, so soothing when Scott Adsit is at the controls. The actor, best known as the droll producer who kept "30 Rock" sane opposite Tina Fey, is able to shift from concern to bone-dry humor in the blink of Bay's very big eye.
All of the bot's sweet puffery keeps "Big Hero 6" afloat as it plows into the relatively typical terrain of superhero-villain battles fought with the fate of the world hanging by a thread. Amid all the nerd-inspired firepower that gives the movie much of its flash, the big boy's droning tone proves to be the film's stealth weapon, perfect for pulling off highly targeted comic strikes. Pow, pow, kaboom, cuddle. ...