[Note: This post contains moderate spoilers.]
There’s no getting around the fact that in many respects, Disney Animation’s latest feature, Big Hero 6, is a thoroughly generic kiddie action-comedy. The film’s protagonist, robotics whiz-kid Hiro (Ryan Potter), already has the obligatory dead parents, and by the end of the first act he’s suffered yet another loss. Hungry for revenge, he assembles four fellow science geeks—and one massive but quite huggable battle-bot—into a squad of wannabe superheroes. Do the members of this team have divergent appearances and personalities that nonetheless complement one another? Check. Is there an up-tempo “Putting the Team Together” montage? You bet. How about a climactic battle in which the heroes momentarily lose, only to push through and defeat the unmasked Big Bad through teamwork? Indeed. The tattered tropes come so fast it’s hard to keep track of them all.
That said, Big Hero 6 is still a vivid and novel piece of work. Its positive, even giddy treatment of science is a wholly unexpected delight, for one. Hiro is a scientific prodigy of sorts, a brilliant robotics engineer who graduated from high school at age thirteen. Since then, however, he has slid into rebellious slackerhood, preferring to hustle on the underground robot-fighting circuit rather than waste away in a college lecture hall. Despite his daunting intellect and technical aptitude, Hiro has nothing but scorn for “nerds,” an ambiguously defined class that seems to encompass any STEM types who strive to make the world a better place, or simply takes shameless delight in their discoveries. In short, it includes any fellow science junkies who don’t click with Hiro’s more venal, “too-cool-for-school” attitude.
This doesn’t sit well with his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney). After rescuing Hiro (yet again) from a pack of enraged ‘bot fighters, Tadashi shows his little brother around his lab at the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology. Once Hiro gets a close look at the bleeding-edge experimental technology being developed by the other students, he almost unwittingly sheds his blasé demeanor. It doesn’t even matter that Tadashi’s enthusiastic, socially maladjusted labmates embody the nerd category that Hiro professes to abhor. There’s a new wonder at every turn: a mag-lev cycle designed by industrial engineer GoGo (Jamie Cheung); plasma cutting beams created by applied physicist Wasabi (Damon Wayons, Jr.); and “metal embrittlement” catalysts developed by chemical engineer Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez). Tadashi even shows off his own secret project, in the form of squishy, soft-spoken medical robot Baymax (Scott Adsit). The students’ astounding research and disarming techno-idealism is enough to melt Hiro’s cynicism and ultimately lure him to the Institute.
Later in the film, when Hiro is on his aforementioned path of vengeance against the mysterious Yokai (James Cromwell), he recruits the other Institute students into an ad hoc team of costumed vigilantes. Never mind that none of them are blessed with inherent super powers per se. Big Hero 6's crime-fighters are of the Iron Man persuasion: brilliant but otherwise normal people who use technology to achieve the extraordinary. Hiro's plan is sort of crazy, but Wasabi's objection—”We're nerds!”—has little to do with pragmatism or cowardice. Like Hiro, the lab geeks cling to cultural biases about different approaches to science, and then use circular reasoning to bolster those biases. Leaving the classroom and research lab behind to battle evildoers just isn't the sort of thing that nerds do, because nerds don't do that sort of thing. Hiro eventually convinces them by appealing to the bonds of friendship, their sense of justice, and their weakness for sheer scientific awesomeness. The latter in particular is a big draw for Institute sports mascot and general hanger-on Fred (T.J. Miller), whose penchant for comic books and monster movies makes him an easy sell for the superteam idea.
The destructive futility of revenge is given a place of prominence in Big Hero 6's thematic landscape, but the film also highlights the importance of rational problem-solving. Baymax's unflappably placid, methodical approach to every challenge provides a humorous manifestation of this ideal, but it's notable that the robot is never portrayed as deficient in other, more emotional respects. If anything, Baymax's caregiver demeanor combined with his logical programming provides him with insight into the psychological dynamics around him. (His concern for Hiro's emotional well-being is the primary reason he acquiesces to the boy's plan to transform him into an armored, jet-powered war-bot.)
Late in the film, Hiro reminds his companions to take a breath and think in order to puzzle their way out of a series of seemingly lethal situations (which they immediately do). His absolute confidence in his teammates' abilities is refreshing, given that victory in so many other kids' films hinges on amorphous concepts such “believing in yourself” or "listening to your heart". In contrast, Hiro urges them: "Use those big brains!" If nothing else, this certainly makes the film distinctive, and perhaps the first Disney animated feature that can be described as Baconian (with a dash of Neil deGrasse Tyson's exuberance). While the film's emotional beats are hardly arid, it's telling that what truly lingers is Big Hero 6's enthusiasm for reason, discovery, and the betterment of life through science. Honey Lemon voices the film's ethos neatly, “I believe the world can be made into a happier, and much brighter place, through the thorough application of nature's toolbox—chemistry!”