Disney's new film, Big Hero 6, is a celebration of science and the joy of innovation. In the guise of a superhero origin story, it tells a smart, inventive tale about young science geeks who grapple with issues around the responsible use of technology. It's one of the best science-fiction films in ages. Minor spoilers ahead...
A lot of people would argue that the real test of science fiction is whether a story revolves around scientific discovery, or some kind of novum. And then, how well the story explores the possible applications and ramifications of that new scientific idea. (This is one of several accepted definitions of science fiction.) By this standard, Big Hero 6 is terrific. The whole plot is driven by new inventions, and the film grapples with the different possible uses and implications of them.
Not only that, but the film's characters are pretty much all science geeks, and a lot of the most enjoyable scenes involve them geeking out about materials science and the difference between a titanium skeleton and a carbon fiber skeleton. (That said, this film is not hard science fiction, which should surprise nobody.)
The main character of Big Hero 6 is a young guy named Hiro Hamada, a genius robot-maker who just wants to take part in illegal robot fights. Until his brother Tadashi introduces him to all of the supergenius geeks at the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology, who are creating the next generation of bizarre inventions in one improbably cramped open-plan laboratory. And Tadashi shows off his own invention: an inflatable medical robot called Baymax.
After that, Hiro just wants to go to the Institute himself, and put his own amazing robotics skills to the test — but after everything goes wrong, he's forced to use his own cleverness and his brother's robot Baymax to set things right, along with a few other science geeks. That's all the plot synopsis I'm going to give, which is pretty much covered in the trailer.
The first 15 or 20 minutes of Big Hero 6 are just dazzling in the sheer number of cool widgets the movie throws at you. Especially when Hiro is traveling around the fictional mash-up city of San Fransokyo and meeting the other science geeks for the first time, the idea parade pretty much never stops. Even as the movie goes on, the neat ideas keep coming at a fairly brisk pace, but they're always cool scientific discoveries rather than fantasy bling.
And speaking of San Fransokyo, it's an incredibly weird setting, that pushes the whole movie to another level of surrealism and futuristic strangeness. As its name suggests, it's a combination of San Francisco and Tokyo, full of streetcars and Victorian houses and torii and giant carp balloons. The hybrid geography and culture seems to suggest mixed-race, multinational future in which the neatest creations come out of the Pacific Rim as a whole rather than one country.
The visuals in this movie are pretty dazzling and colorful, and directors Don Hall and Chris Williams lavish lots of attention to the long shots of the skyline with its mish-mosh of insane skyscrapers and crazy lights. Unlike Wreck-It Ralph, which drew its visual impact from the collision of different video game styles, this movie bombards you with different types of cultural and heroic imagery, while managing to suggest that it's all of a piece.
To the extent that Big Hero 6 is a superhero film, it's an offbeat one — the team that Hiro assembles is as goofy as they are geeky, and a lot of the main action scenes are more comedy-oriented than anything else. Where The Incredibles dwelled on superhero trappings like capes and secret identities, Big Hero 6 is content to handwave all of that stuff, because these are mostly just inventors and tinkerers, teaming up and using science to deal with sticky situations.
And one of the great things about Big Hero 6 is the way it shows trial and error — some of the most exciting moments, as well as some of the most moving, involve the main characters trying again and again until they figure something out.
Without going into much detail, the plot of Big Hero 6 does involve the misuse of science — both through reckless experimentation, and through people using technologies developed for peaceful use as weapons. But the movie handles this topic in a smart way, engaging with the question of how to use technology responsibly without including any big sledgehammery speeches about playing god or whatnot.
As you've probably already seen from the trailers, the real star of this movie is Baymax, the big balloon robot who's basically the best friend we all wish we'd had when we were kids. In addition to being straight-up adorable, Baymax winds up personifying a lot of the movie's thematic and emotional progression as Hiro tries to go from "science geek" to "science hero."
On the negative tip, any grown-up who's seen a few movies before will be able to predict every single plot twist in this movie far in advance. Which is fine, because these story beats are delivered with maximum effectiveness, and a minimum of winking. This film has enough cool thematic and character ground to break that it can get away with a by-the-numbers plot. In fact, the refusal to try and surprise the adults in the audience probably works in this movie's favor, because it focuses on telling a rock-solid story rather than pulling the rug out from anybody.
Also on the negative tip, the team's version of Shaggy, Fred (T.J. Miller), is kind of annoying and talks way too much about his love of wearing dirty underwear. (Kids will probably love him.) On the plus side, his superhero outfit, basically a rubber monster suit, is legit awesome. Also on the plus side, Alan Tudyk continues his streak of doing great voicework in every Disney animated movie, playing a sleazy corner-cutting entrepreneur.
Big Hero 6 is a heart-warming film whose characters struggle with real loss and sadness, and overcome hardship thanks to their ability to build robots, lasers, zero-friction magnetic wheels and other ridonkulously cool stuff. This movie isn't going to beat Guardians of the Galaxy for my favorite movie of 2014, by a long shot, but it's a better science-fiction movie because it is absolutely overflowing with the thoughtful love of science.