There are some films that have an unfortunately lessened reputation because they aren’t certain other films. This movie took a lot of grief in 2014 for being nominated for an Oscar when The LEGO Movie wasn’t, and for winning when Song of the Sea and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya didn’t. And I get that, even if I do not myself care for The LEGO Movie all that much. Where I depart from people, though, is when people call it actually bad, because that’s not true. Then again, I’d also direct the heat toward The Boxtrolls and How to Train Your Dragon 2 instead, and I know plenty of people who disagree with me about those!
Hiro (Ryan Potter) and Tadashi (Daniel Henney) Hamada are both very bright. They are orphaned brothers; Tadashi is older and attending the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology. Hiro is thirteen and a high school graduate doing nothing in particular with his life. He gets busted bot fighting. Tadashi shows Hiro how amazing his school is and what opportunities he would have there, and introduces him to Professor Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell), one of the creators of modern robotics. He also shows Hiro his own project, Baymax (Scott Adsit), a robotic health care companion. Hiro is amazed and decides he has to get into the school.
In order to get in, Hiro develops microbots, thousands of tiny robots that all work together using a neural transmitter to control them. Alas, as he is in the middle of demonstrating them at the show, there is an explosion and a fire, and Tadashi and Professor Callaghan are killed. Hiro is desolate. Then he discovers that his microbots have been stolen and realizes that the fire that killed his brother was deliberately set to steal them, and he redesigns Baymax to help him get revenge. This also means teaming up with his brother’s school friends, Go Go (Jamie Chung), Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.), Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), and Fred (T.J. Miller).
One of the really great things about this movie is the family dynamic. It’s not just the boys, though Hiro’s grief is some of the most real I’ve ever seen in a movie. He doesn’t cry; he ceases. He folds inward. However, there is also their Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph), who’s in a place no one should have to be in. She took the boys in ten years earlier, when their parents died, knowing basically nothing about kids. She’s raised them the best she can—and I think she’s demonstrably done a pretty good job. And then she’s got to get Hiro through even worse as his only remaining support. She does not feel equipped, and who can blame her?
I also unabashedly love Baymax’s attempt to talk to Hiro about puberty. “Puberty can often be a confusing time for a young adolescent flowering into manhood” is the sort of line that no human could ever say that somehow seems completely believable coming from Baymax. I frankly hope that Tadashi was planning to do a little more with human interaction before actually putting him out for use, because he’s missing a lot. Huggable he may be, as per design, but he’s missing on some of the basic social graces.
Is there strictly speaking a reason for a low-battery Baymax to act drunk? Nope. But it was funny! Several things in the movie have that particular justification, and I’m okay with that. Interrupting the training montage for getting gummi bears from a vending machine? Random and funny! Baymax’s failed fist bump? Funny! Indeed, the very fact that Baymax is trying to help take down a villain while moving, as the planners apparently designed him to, like a toddler in a full diaper is funny.
All of which helps tone down the mood from what could be a fairly grim treatise on the subject of vengeance. But the movie leaves room for what Baymax refers to as Hiro’s adolescent mood swings even though plenty of people would think there’s no room in grief for the joy Hiro feels on his first flight with Baymax. And that is perhaps the hardest part of grief—discovering that there’s room in it for joy. The first time can feel like a betrayal, and it’s no surprise that it’s where the cracks in Hiro’s desire to get even come in.
It’s also a stylish as hell movie. The premise of the city is that the Japanese helped rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, leading to a style that is both Japanese and American. The characters all have their own unique style—and sense of movement; one of the early steps in creating the character design was doing basic animation wherein the characters came into a room and sat down, to examine how each of them would do it differently.
The one thing I have to say about Fred, who I’ve never much liked, is that he’s a good insight into the fact that everyone thinks they’re the hero of the story. I sympathize with Wasabi’s desire to laser hand him in the face, but I also sympathize with Fred’s desire to have a theme song. To Fred, he’s the team leader, simply because it doesn’t occur to him that he might not be. After all, Fred’s read enough comic books to know about the billionaire superhero!
Actually, I haven’t read this comic. My understanding is that a couple of the regular characters from it couldn’t be in the movie because they were owned by Fox, still at the time a separate studio. Because they are also connected to the X-Men. This was the first movie since the beginning of the end of the Marvel Diaspora to win an Oscar, to my knowledge the second Marvel-based movie ever to win one. Until this year, that was where the record stood—Black Panther was the first MCU movie to actually win any Oscars in any category, as this is not an MCU movie.
Yeah, I admit it. I likely think as much as I do of this movie because it’s at the intersection of superheroes and Disney, and that’s an intersection I’m happy to live at. But I do think the movie is worth enjoying on its own merits. Even if you like any of the others of that year better.