Big Hero 6 updates Disney's cartoon kids' flicks

Imagine if nerdy Clark Kent didn't have to remove his glasses and pocket protector to save the world. Then imagine him as fat and sweet as a marshmallow. Meet Big Hero 6's Baymax, Disney's new cuddly champion: a waddling, inflatable health care companion who can sense your pulse, diagnose disease, and, if reprogrammed, kill.

Our setting is San Fransokyo, a hybrid of California and Japan where everyone loves tech gadgets and sushi. (Whether the city is fictitious or simply the near future is up for debate.) Boy wonder Hiro (Ryan Potter), a 14-year-old orphan who lives with his college-age older brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney), and goofball aunt, Cass (Maya Rudolph), is wasting his brains entering—and winning—robot gladiator fights. His weapon is a tiny, grinning machine that looks like a metal rag doll but is held in place by magnets. When a battle bot slashes Hiro's invention with a buzz saw, it simply pulls itself back together and attacks.

Hiro's making money but setting himself up for a criminal record and a couple broken limbs. As the film opens, directors Don Hall and Chris Williams swoop us above the shining nighttime metropolis over the sound of suspenseful strings, almost as if they've mistaken this PG cartoon for a Bruce Willis action thriller. For kids, Big Hero 6 comes nail-bitingly close—The Little Mermaid this ain't, and as the tension mounts, the tykes in my theater were stricken into silence. The movie wrestles with emotional stakes many children have never felt, and when the closing credits rolled, the kids I saw emerged into the bright, reassuring lobby blinking like sad moles or hiding behind their mothers' legs.

In the first act, Tadashi attempts to rescue his younger brother's inventing soul from the streets. He drags Hiro to his university and convinces him that his talents deserve a state-of-the-art laboratory, not to mention the oversight of Professor Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell). There, Hiro meets his kindred spirits: Go Go (Jamie Chung), a hellion with a magnetic bike; Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), a geek who loves lasers; Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), a girlie girl who knows her way around chemicals; and a stoner named Fred (T.J. Miller), whom the wonks allow to hang out and be their dumb, cheerful mascot.

Right away, Big Hero 6 assures kids that being smart is super cool, pace losers like Fred, who begs his friends to build him a fire-breathing lizard costume rather than invent one himself. (The rest of the gang would do, if they didn't think the idea was wicked-dumb.) Tadashi, for example, has prioritized the balloon-like Baymax, who automatically inflates whenever someone nearby says, “Ow!” Hiro is less altruistic. He invents microbots, small widgets that look like metal-dipped macaroni but can assemble into a giant, moving sculpture of whatever Hiro dreams, thanks to a headband that reads his thoughts. When Hiro introduces these game-changing gizmos, he gives a speech full of such rousing big promises that you almost expect Steve Jobs to disinter himself and applaud.

But then an arsonist destroys Hiro's (admittedly not very long) life's work and accidentally offs Tadashi. With only Baymax to analyze his hormones and sit him down for an awkward sex talk (which Hall and Williams cut off before parents can get panicky), Hiro asks his geek friends to set things right—and equips his brother's kindly robot with imposing armor and a memory card programmed with punches and kicks scanned from kung fu movies. It's here that Big Hero 6 gets glitchy. It wants to convince children that engineers are awesome. Yet engineers tend to play it safe, as Wasabi does when he insists on using his blinkers during a dangerous car chase.

To make engineers more awesome, the movie upgrades the gang into superheroes—albeit, superheroes who use science to figure out how to fly and smash—which scrambles the message. The script wants to be progressive, and often is. (Go Go's fierce catchphrase: “Woman up!”) Still, before we're done cheering a cartoon about clever women in lab coats, they're all stripped down to leotards. Sigh.

Big Hero 6 is easier to admire than to love. It veers from chipper to noisy to dark stretches where it grapples with adult-sized grief. Moments in here nearly measure up to The NeverEnding Story's Artax in the swamp, a movie death that taught a generation to mourn. This conduit, Hiro, isn't just a sweet moppet: He's full of rage and despair and ego. He needs Baymax to be his family, which means training him to fist-bump, and groaning when the robot runs out of battery and acts like a stumbling, slurring drunk—a moment that could have kids later suspiciously checking their own parents for a plug. Yet the film continually, and smartly, reminds us that Baymax is still a computer, which means that while Hiro can love him, the robot can never love him back. At least even in this future, not all of our humanity can be outsourced.

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