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'Big Hero 6' is a smart, sweet superhero flick

Big Hero 6 treads familiar territory for a superhero origin story. It introduces us to its world, a futuristic city called San Fransokyo, a mashup of San Fransico and Tokyo. It reveals the major players of the Big Hero 6, a band of geeky technophiles, and their primary motivations. It even gives us some supervillians to sneer at.

[The following film review is spoiler-free.]

But Big Hero 6 is funnier and sweeter than your average action hero flick. It works just as well as a slapstick comedy as it does a superhero movie, and its cast is far more interesting than the whitewashed heroes and villains you'll find in most mega-budget tentpoles.

The film centers on Hiro Tanaka (Ryan Potter), a teenaged robotics genius who spends most of his time hustling rich bullies in illegal backstreet "bot fights," where he makes bank setting up his incredible creations against others. His brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney), also a brilliant roboticist, and his aunt Kass (an exuberant Maya Rudolph), want him to apply his "big brain" towards better things.

Tadashi takes him to his "nerd lab" at his prestigious university, where we meet up with Fred (T.J. Miller), Go-Go (Jamie Chung), Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.) and Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), Tadashi's friends and fellow students. Hiro is hooked, and makes plans to enroll at the school, provided he can impress Professor Callaghan (James Cromwell) into earning a spot on the team.

big hero 6 banner

There's chemistry and obvious affection among the bunch. Go-Go is a no-nonsense speed demon, working to perfect her ride. Honey Lemon is a perky chemistry genius and eternal optimist. Wasabi is a hilariously meticulous engineer. Fred is the school mascot, and the sort of goofy dude who little kids always seem to find hilarious (at least, they did in my advanced screening).

it's the core relationships that really make Big Hero 6 work

But it's the core relationships that really make Big Hero 6 work. Hiro and Tadashi obviously love one another a great deal. They are brothers who get along well, despite a big age difference, and Tadashi looks out for Hiro and wants the world for him. His fundamental decency is underscored by his master project: a miraculous, semi-inflatable healthcare robot called Baymax (voiced by 30 Rock's Scott Adsit) who looks a little bit like an extra puffy Michelin Man. Baymax is a fantastic character himself; a gentle, kind, slightly dopey giant that always wants the best for his "patients." Hiro and Baymax have a natural affection for one another that grows throughout their adventures.

When tragedy strikes, the result is heartbreaking. There's real weight to these relationships, and big, emotional moments feel earned.

But Big Hero 6 is no melodrama. It only takes itself seriously insofar as its characters' emotions are concerned, and otherwise cuts loose with slapstick and sight gags. Much of the comedy comes from Baymax's nonplussed reactions to increasingly insane situations, including a zany car chase that he spends on the roof of a zippy vehicle, dippy grin plastered to his face. Baymax's awkwardness is played up for laughs as well, especially his inability to squeeze through small spaces and need to "let out some air," from time to time. Many of the jokes go after low-hanging fruit for easy laughs, but they never feel mean-spirited.

Many of the jokes go after easy laughs, but they never feel mean-spirited.

Importantly, Big Hero 6 avoids a common pitfall associated with the "child genius" archetype, by presenting Hiro as a smart, but entirely relatable kid. He's not whiny or bratty, and he reacts appropriately to the difficulties presented to him. When he hurts, he gets depressed and eventually tries to channel his frustrations into his work. And yes, he learns and grows over the course of the film, but it's never schmaltzy.

It's also refreshing to see a superhero film with a multicultural cast. Seeing a group of heroes comprised mainly of people of color (well, and a robot, who can be read as a larger person) is fantastic, and a welcome change of pace for the genre.

Big Hero 6 is clever, sweet and intensely likable, much like its band of heroes. I walked out of the theater happy and energized, and if the young families in my screening were any indication, just like a kid.

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