Review: 'Big Hero 6'

The robot's more beguiling than his movie. But the movie's pretty good.

In "Big Hero 6" we have a robot considerably more beguiling than his movie. Yet there's enough visual invention afoot, and enough spirited interplay among the human characters, to keep things bobbing along.

Baymax is the name of the robot in question. He resembles a flotation device or the Michelin Man's blobbier brother. He and his adventures come from the pages of Marvel Comics, which marks a first for Disney animation. It will not be the last; Disney's purchase of Marvel five years ago opens up all sorts of avenues for our collective superhero fatigue.

The "Big Hero 6" gang first appeared in the Marvel pages in 1998. Its crime-fighting, mystery-solving band of techno-geniuses, as adapted by screenwriters Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson and (in a separate draft) Jordan Roberts, arrives on screens three months after the rougher, more violent live-action fantasy "Guardians of the Galaxy" asserted the box-office appeal of misfit outcasts and their team-building exercises.

The setting is quite wonderful, a hybrid of San Francisco and Tokyo called San Fransokyo. The Golden Gate Bridge, laden with pan-Asian design flourishes, dominates the skyline. The hero of the tale is Hiro, a 14-year-old prodigy who graduated high school at 13 and now spends his hours engaged in robot battles in grimy, undisclosed locations. Hiro's older brother, Tadashi, disapproves and steers Hiro toward his own place of employment, the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology.

Tadashi's passion project is a new, and cushier, breed of robot, conceived as a "personal health care companion" of gentle demeanor and reliable intelligence. The robot doesn't enter the story for a while. At the institute, Hiro develops tiny, mind-controlled nanobots, which he presents to Tadashi's supervisor. But a mysterious fire leads to tragedy, Hiro's tantalizing microbot research vanishes and a Kabuki-masked villain appears to be readying the technology for nefarious and action-climax purposes.

While we're on it: Many Disney (and Pixar) animated pictures succumb to this temptation of the protracted action climax. This is one of them. I dare Disney not to end their next three animated features this way. The more "Big Hero 6" avoids this stuff and devotes its time and attention to its biggest hero, the more charming the results.

Hiro's human colleagues, out to unmask and defeat their masked adversary, include Tadashi's motley lab partners. The voice work throughout makes the characters interesting and distinctive, even when their material is less so. Ryan Potter (Hiro) nails both the easygoing snark and the angry kid inside; as the ultimate Godzilla fan, T.J. Miller times his self-narrated action movies ("superjump!") just so.

Baymax informs Hiro that "our programming prevents us from injuring a human being," but he's adaptable, upgradable. Hiro's improvements to his brother's invention give the robot the ability to fly, and the joy ride Hiro and Baymax take high above the bay is a high-velocity standout. It's also a handy companion piece to the film's "Bullitt"-inspired street-level car chase, with Hiro and pals pursued by the murderous villain.

Without making a big deal out of it, "Big Hero 6" features a shrewdly balanced and engaging group of male and female characters of various ethnic backgrounds. It'd be nice to live in a world where this wasn't worth a mention, but it is. And yet the movie belongs to the big guy. While Baymax has his limitations — "I am not fast," he says when urged to run by one of his human pals — somehow his face, delineated by two black dots connected by a straight line, expresses plenty of human emotion.

Scott "30 Rock" Adsit voices Baymax, aptly, as a kind of Americanized mecha-Jeeves, ready to serve. Fist-bumped by one of his human comrades, he asks for a definition of the phrase. Then, sounding like an unusually helpful HMO representative, he notes: "I will add 'fist-bump' to my caregiving matrix."

"Big Hero 6" - 3 stars

MPAA rating: PG (action and peril, some rude humor and thematic elements)

Running time: 1:45

Opens: Thursday evening

mjphillips@tribune.com

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