Thursday, November 6, 2014

Review: "Big Hero 6"

I miss comic books, though I don’t know if they miss me. It’s been 25 years since I bought one, and since then an entire generation of artists has grown up and created books I’ve never heard of -- including “Big Hero 6,” which has now been adapted into a Disney animated film.

Apparently, the Disney folks weren’t acquainted with this lesser-known Marvel title until about three years ago. But it supposedly, in Hollywood parlance, “spoke to them.” I’m just not sure if they understood what it was saying.

The problem with “Big Hero 6” is that it’s structured as the gentle tale of a boy and his robot, and then it veers suddenly into a superhero team genesis story with lots of boingy action and sneering bad guys. Not only to the two halves never really mesh, but the other four members of the “6” wind up as afterthoughts.

In this tech-heavy story, they’re literally add-ons.

Based on the comic by Duncan Rouleau and Steven T. Seagle, “Big Hero 6” is set in an alternate version of our world, slightly in the future. The locale is San Fransokyo, a multicultural mix of East and West sensibilities. Fourteen-year-old Hiro Hamada (voice of Ryan Potter) is a science whiz who’s already graduated from high school, but spends his days hustling in robot battle matches. His older brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney), thinks Hiro should follow his own lead and enroll at the Institute of Technology, where they’re taking robots and gadgets to the next level.

Tadashi’s own big invention is Baymax (Scott Adsit, who must have the most calming voice I’ve ever heard), a funny-looking medical robot made of inflatable vinyl. He puffs himself up to full size when he senses a person is injured, resembling a crossbreeding of the Michelin Man and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from “Ghostbusters.”

(I pause here to point out that, though I’ve not read the comic book, I did enough research to learn the Baymax in it resembles the portly, vanilla-personality version seen here not at all. He’s a huge, mean, green warrior.)

Anyway, bad things happen and Hiro decides to transform Baymax into a blinged-out badass -- a serious challenge, considering he’s basically a white balloon who leaks air if even slightly abraded. His programming is about helping the sick and injured, not laying down the hurt. But Hiro tinkers with his exterior, transforming Baymax into a big red flying goliath, and with his innards, rendering him more assertive.

The rest of the team are assembled late in the game, and are other students at the institute. They include Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), who wields energy blades sprouting from his hands; Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), who concocts all sorts of strange goos from within her handbag; Go Go Tomago (Jamie Chung), who skates around on and wields gravitational discs; and Fred (T.J. Miller), a dim-bulb dude-ish type who dreams of becoming a fire-breathing dragon… and does, sort of.

It’s kind of nice to have a team of super-heroes who did not get their abilities via gamma rays or mutation, but through sheer dint of their brains and hard work. They’re basically nerds in super-suits. Interestingly, the outfit Hiro creates for himself does not grant him any powers; he basically just rides around on Baymax’s back like ballast. It’s also weird that, after an early moment spraying Hiro’s burn with ointment, Baymax never employs his medical skills again.

The villain is a mysterious bad guy in a kabuki mask who has stolen Hiro’s micro-robot technology to create a seemingly invincible army of tiny minions who can form themselves into any shape he imagines. (I was never quite clear why Hiro, who creates all the incredibly advanced power-ups for his team in a garage, isn’t able to just whip up some more microbots.)

Other notable characters include Alistair Krei (Alan Tudyk), a reckless industrialist; Professor Robert Callaghan, benevolent head of the institute (an excellent James Cromwell); and Maya Rudolph as the Hamada brothers’ loving aunt.

I really liked the early part of “Big Hero 6,” when it’s just the story of a lost and lonely kid who uses his smarts to invent a friend. Then it tries to go all “Avengers” on us.

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