BigHero6coverGrade: A
Entire family: Yes
2014, 102 min., Color
Rated PG for action and peril, some rude humor, and thematic elements
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
Bonus features: B

“Different, but as good as Frozen,” my wife pronounced it. “Four stars,” both teens said. And Big Hero 6 was easily my pick for Best Animated Feature of 2014. We all loved it, though I have to admit the poster didn’t sell me, nor did my hearing that the story was about a main character named Hiro (Hero?) and his brother Tadashi. How in the world would Disney be able to deliver a robotics story involving Japanese-named characters without being locked into an anime style?

Well, if you’re Disney, you confidently (and I might add, audaciously) create a future city named San Fransokyo, which, we learn in one of the bonus features, combines a geological mapping of San Francisco with the visual and cultural look of Tokyo—a hybrid that allows them to do pretty much anything, visually. That invented city, which was rendered using a new method called “Hyperion,” is so infused with vibrancy that you’re almost blown away by some of the cityscape scenes.

That’s not surprising, given the fact that it’s Disney and they’re all about originality and heart. Both of those traits drive Big Hero 6, which takes its name and spirit (and a few characters) from an obscure Marvel comic book.

Big Hero 6 tells the story of a 14-year-old robotics prodigy named Hiro (Ryan Potter) who’s already graduated from high school and hopes to be accepted into the nerdy robotics school his older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) attends. He visits the school and meets some of the other students, a quirky group that includes a tough bicycle-loving woman named GoGo (Jamie Chung), the neurotic and overly self-protective Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.), and a fast-talking hyperexuberant chemistry wiz named Honey Lemon (Génesis Rodríguez).

It’s an origin story, really, about how this group of brainy misfits comes together to form a superhero group called Big Hero 6, but it’s also every bit as much of a relationship story between a boy and robot as a film like The Iron Giant. The plot is set in motion when Hiro’s project on microrobotics blows away the competition at a big school science fair, and Professor Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell) hands Hiro a letter of acceptance after warning him not to sell his idea to billionaire businessman Alistair Krei (Alan Tudyk).

BigHero6screen1As one of the animators says in a bonus feature, Disney has never shied away from the issue of loss, having traumatized one generation with Bambi and Old Yeller and another with The Lion King. A new generation will vicariously learn to deal with loss through this film, which begins with two already orphaned boys living with their aunt (Maya Rudolph) and introduces three situations where a loved one may have been killed. That’s as much as I can say without getting into spoiler territory, except to add that Big Hero 6 is full of emotion. It’s also full of humor, with the soft vinyl robot Baymax (voiced by Scott Adsit) sharing the comedic duties with all the nerdy characters and a rich wannabe superhero friend named Fred (T. J. Miller).

For this film the animators wanted a huggable robot, and they pretty much hook you from the moment that the vinyl Baymax inflates and says to Hiro, “Hello, I’m Baymax, your Personal Health Care Companion.” Programmed to be a caregiver who can scan bodies and identify, then treat what’s wrong, he “moves like a toddler with a full diaper,” according to the animators. And yes, I can surely see that. When Baymax tries to mimic a fist bump that Hiro always did with his brother, the result is a catch phrase and gesture that puts an exclamation point on a personality that’s already huge—something I never would have believed possible, just from looking at a photo of him.

BigHero6screen2Like the best animated Disney films, Big Hero 6 has it all. Well, almost all. There’s no music in this film, but Big Hero 6 makes you laugh, well up, and gasp as only Disney animators can. It’s a visually stimulating action film that has emotional content in every sequence. From an opening scene involving botfights to the emergence of a Kabuki mask-wearing villain who commands an army of microbots that shift alignments to form whatever shape he’s thinking, the animation is enthralling. Animators voted How to Train Your Dragon 2 the 2015 winner for Outstanding Achievement in Directing, but gave the nod for Animated Effects in an Animated Production to Big Hero 6. All I can say is, good call. But the heart of this film is still a love story between a boy and his robot. Disney animators really make us care about the characters and their feelings for each other. And with an inflatable robot who’s basically a home nurse, that’s some feat.