In 2014, Disney’s CG-animated adaptation of Man of Action‘s Marvel comic Big Hero 6 surprised movie-going audiences with a hilarious, heart-warming, and incredibly heroic tale. Sure, Scott Adsit‘s inflatable caregiving robot Baymax stole the show, but just beneath the cute one-liners and sound effects was a mature story of loss, revenge, and redemption. Big Hero 6 was, at its core, about the relationship between Tadashi Hamada and his younger, 14-year-old brother Hiro, a relationship that’s torn asunder when Tadashi sacrifices himself to save another. It’s a moment that sets the stakes for Hiro’s journey and brings an emotional accounting to his decisions from there on out. Hiro doesn’t make all the best choices, but eventually, with the help of his brother’s friends, he does make the right ones.
Now, Disney XD is set to launch an animated version dubbed Big Hero 6: The Series. And it’s doing so in a big way by premiering the one-hour TV movie Big Hero 6: Baymax Returns, followed by two full-length episodes previewing the series ahead of its 2018 debut. Set in the fictional city of San Fransokyo, “Baymax Returns” explores the moment after Hiro believes that his compassionate, cutting-edge robot Baymax is lost in the portal forever and discovers the chip his brother Tadashi designed to create Baymax. 14-year-old tech genius Hiro begins school as the new prodigy at San Fransokyo Institute of Technology and sets off to rebuild Baymax, but his overconfidence and penchant for taking shortcuts leads him and the newly minted Big Hero 6 team – Wasabi, Honey Lemon, Go Go and Fred – into trouble.
There’s a lot to like here: The gang argues back and forth over whether or not they’ll get back together to defend the city of San Fransokyo, as they planned at the end of the movie, offering plenty of opportunities for humor and conflict. Hiro’s story continues, allowing us to see his ever-evolving ingenuity and to put his technological talent on display. Oh and as the title might have told you, Baymax returns as delightful as always, though not in the way you might expect. Adsit’s performance and Baymax’s indomitably optimistic and cheerful outlook is just as wonderful as you remember, and the lightness of the caretaker character’s portrayal lifts everything else around it.
However, there are some rough patches as well. It took me a little while to get used to the animation style. Now I didn’t expect the series to continue with CG animation, but the visual style that Snipple Animation Studio went with is a curious one. It’s clean, quite geometric, and it feels like it’s somewhere between 2D and 3D, as if the characters and backgrounds are all cutouts laid on top of each other for animation. At times it’s very detailed, as in scenes featuring Hiro’s Aunt Cass and her Lucky Cat Cafe, but other times the action seems to take precedence over a fully fleshed-out background. Overall, it’s a fun design choice since the animation makes the series feel like a comic book story that’s leaped off the page.
Where Big Hero 6: Baymax Returns fell short for me was, surprisingly, in the characterization. You can see there’s an effort to remind viewers that Hiro idolized his big brother and misses him terribly, but gone are the more mature aspects to this relationship and the complications that arise from Tadashi’s death. Hiro still makes some mistakes along the way, which is to be expected considering that he’s young but very gifted, but they’re more in service of his own goals rather than a misguided attempt to avenge his brother. Oddly, outside of working to restore Baymax, Hiro’s technical abilities are left up to exposition or montages; hopefully we’ll see more of the scientific side of his pursuits in the full series since the college he attends affords a lot of opportunity to do so.
Luckily, Hiro has the other members of the Big Hero 6 team to support him, a role they play both in costume and out of it. Each of them gets a decent share of the screen time in this special to remind viewers of their specific personalities and powers; that’s a good enough foundation to build on in future episodes. (Oh and Aunt Cass is as fun and funny as ever.) The only thing that rubs me the wrong way is Fred’s overly enthusiastic nature and excitement over getting the gang back together, but this carries over from the movie so at least it’s consistent. And on the villainous side of things, the returning local crime boss Yama provides a good enough foil for the early goings and offers up some surprisingly nefarious and destructive plans. But the big bad of the series is the man pulling the strings behind the scenes; expect to see more of him in the future.
The only new character we get to meet in this TV special is Jennifer Lewis‘s Dean/Professor Granville, a no-nonsense instructor who acts as a sort of disciplinarian and mentor for Hiro. For her part, Granville is a solid player in the college scene and is obviously going to play a bigger role in the series going forward. However, in this TV special, she vacillates between forcing Hiro to earn his privileges at the school and allowing him to run wild despite the obvious dangers; it’s a little inconsistent.
The same could be said for Big Hero 6: Baymax Returns. When it works, it’s great, funny, and action-packed. But too often it stumbles because the story’s foundation just isn’t as solid as that of the movie … which is odd considering that series should be based on the movie to begin with. Somewhere along the way, the series diluted the more mature storytelling of the Oscar-winning film. That’s fine, and somewhat to be expected in the movie-to-series transition, but here’s hoping that the Disney XD show finds an audience that its protagonists can grow up with.
Rating: ★★★ Good
Check out “Baymax Returns” tonight at 8pm, simultaneously on Disney XD and Disney Channel, and available on the DisneyNOW app and Disney XD VOD. Immediately following the TV movie, two special full-length preview episodes of Big Hero 6: The Series will debut exclusively on the DisneyNOW app and Disney XD VOD. The series will debut in early 2018 on Disney XD.