The 1980s were a golden age of merchandising. Giants such as Hasbro and Bandai rolled a juggernaut of plastic toys into the market and cleverly backed them with television shows that could sell the toys without being commercials. Kids watched the shows and then clamored for Transformers, for Strawberry Shortcake and for Thundercats. Sometimes, the shows were good, but more often, they were a transparently hackneyed sales pitch for a never-ending line of toys.
Their spiritual successors have figured out a way to sell the entertainment first and then introduce a brilliant merchandise line based on the colorful characters and cool accessories they wield. Which, of course, brings us to Marvel, Disney and “Big Hero 6.”
Disney acquired Marvel in 2009, opening up a treasure trove of material for their gaspingly tired animated film franchise. “Big Hero 6” is the first Disney animated film to be based on Marvel material, and the result is a strange hybrid of the sensibilities of the two. The film tells the story of kid genius Hiro Hamada and his robotic scientist brother Tadashi in the gorgeous mash-up city of San Fransokyo. After tragedy interrupts Hiro’s dreams, he assembles a crackerjack team of scientists-cum-superheroes led by their paladin, Tadashi’s medical assistance robot, Baymax. Together, they confront a deceptive and nuanced evil and learn to work as a team.
This team is extraordinarily diverse, both on and off screen. Hiro (Ryan Potter) is a half-Japanese young teenager with an impressive emotional range throughout the arc of the story. Tadashi (Daniel Henney) is a pitch-perfect older brother, encouraging and teasing by turns. Both Hamada brothers are played by Asian-American voice actors, and their aunt Cass is portrayed by Maya Rudolph. Tough-girl racer GoGo is played by Korean-American actress Jamie Chung with a quotable catchphrase and a steel edge to her voice. Genesis Rodriguez and Damon Wayans Jr. round out the cast that doesn’t at all resemble the original group from the comic book but does reflect the changing face of Disney.
Baymax, the cuddly vinyl robot, is the most sympathetic character, ironically. He is tailor-made by a merchandising genius, a world away from the ripped Terminator clone from the original series. He sports an adorably inhuman face, modeled after the suzu bells of a Shinto temple, and a schlubby little tummy to make him look huggable to patients. The transition that changes him from a teddy bear into a tank is remarkable, and his human co-stars’ struggle pales in comparison. Unlike the standard-issue Pixar tearjerker, “Big Hero 6” does not make the audience fall in love with a struggling protagonist or pity a tortured villain. It makes the audience wonder where they can buy one of those squishy balloon animals they see on the screen.
This is the real genius of Disney: not the film itself, but the tidal wave of subsidiary cash that follows successful marketing. On that scale, “Big Hero 6” is going to be a monster hit.
This is not to say that “Big Hero 6” isn’t fun. It is fun; it delivers genuine laughs and a few moments that echo the lonesome beauty of “WALL-E” or the adventure of “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Its ensemble cast dilutes the emotion of the central conflict by introducing characters whose names are difficult to recall and whose abilities only get seconds of screen time.
The film also features a killer single by Fall Out Boy that summons up the ghost of Michael Jackson at his most salable. The overall effect is that of a good effort but not of a must-see superhero movie with an assured trilogy coming down the pike. It will be fun for kids and forgettable for most adults.
The best thing about the film must also be the final thing mentioned: Stay in the theater until after the credits. This is a known bonus to Marvel fans, and “Big Hero 6” is no exception. In fact, it offers something no other Marvel movie has dared to try.
“Big Hero 6” is playing at UC Theater.
Contact Meg Elison at [email protected].