Disney had a tall order on its hands when it came time to follow up their animation studio’s record-breaking megahit Frozen, but the team has proven themselves up to the challenge with the hip and heartfelt superhero origin story Big Hero 6. Based loosely upon yet another Marvel comic series, this tale of a misfit, makeshift band of vigilantes may at first sound suspiciously like other recent box office juggernauts. Luckily, a wholly original and eye-popping aesthetic, along with an irresistibly adorable robotic sidekick, help set Big Hero 6 apart from its predecessors and present a fully-realized children’s saga with emotional and intellectual depth.

Set in the dazzling futurescape of San Fransokyo, Big Hero 6 combines Western and Eastern cultural influences with spectacular results, creating a metropolitan hybrid unlike any other onscreen setting. Directors Don Hall and Chris Williams weave elements of anime and manga within writers Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson and Jordan Roberts’ science-fiction narrative to supplement the film’s compelling themes of grief, friendship, heroism and family. While many of Disney’s modern offerings skew specifically to either girls (Frozen, Tangled) or boys (Wreck-It-Ralph), Big Hero 6 wisely boasts relatably diverse characters and plotlines to defy gender and ethnic boundaries, ultimately appealing to audiences of all ages and backgrounds.

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bigHero654243c09ab09c14-year-old techno prodigy Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) has already graduated from high school, but wastes his time and talent hustling black market robotics battles instead of pursuing further education. Hiro’s gifted older brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney), finally coaxes him to explore collegiate work at San Fransokyo Tech, a sprawling, MIT-inspired campus where Tadashi and his friends — including feisty tomboy Gogo (Jamie Chung), neurotic lasers expert Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), girly chemistry whiz Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), and token goofball Fred (T.J. Miller) – wow Hiro with their innovative discoveries. Realizing “nerd school” might be his ticket after all, Hiro stuns faculty and corporate bigwigs alike with his revolutionary, thought-controlled micro-bots and seems a shoo-in for admission.

Sadly, a mysterious explosion claims the lives of Tadashi and revered professor Callaghan (James Cromwell), sending Hiro into a guilt-ridden spiral of depression and unproductivity. Weeks go by without Hiro making any emotional or educational headway, despite the compassionate support of his new friends and benevolent Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph), who took Hiro and Tadashi under her wing after their parents died years earlier. Things look awfully bleak until Hiro discovers Tadashi’s thesis project, an inflatable, robotic health care provider named Baymax (Scott Adsit), who injects both Hiro and the film with a sweet-natured sense of compassion and wonderment.

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bigHero654243c0a5e8e4The genuine companionship between whip-smart, immature Hiro and the overly logical, perceptive android makes for an affably dynamic and complementary duo that soars through Big Hero 6 literally and figuratively. Watching Hiro and Baymax fly through the incredible San Fransokyo skyline and topography is nothing short of thrilling, but there’s deeper terrain to explore. Their relationship and the plot reach new heights when it’s revealed Tadashi’s death was an unfortunate side effect of a larger, nefarious scheme to exploit Hiro’s robotic skills. An ominous, albeit obligatory, villain hidden underneath a kabuki mask and swaths of Hiro’s micro-bots calls for Hiro, Baymax and their motley gang of lab geeks to band together and uncover the ultimate truth. Unfortunately, as their mission progresses, Hiro starts prioritizing revenge over justice, and it’s his conflicted psyche that proves a more complicated and harrowing problem to solve than anything advanced calculus has to offer.

While Big Hero 6 proudly showcases all the visual fanfare modern animation wizardry can muster, it’s the refreshing embrace of academics and intelligence that gives the movie and its smarty-pants protagonists a real place in Disney history. The characters all possess admirable ambition, astounding natural ability and a passion and appreciation for hard, honest work that will surely make any parent cheer. Perhaps most importantly, though, the contagious excitement generated while watching the eponymous Big Hero 6 compile and utilize their incredible superhero gadgetry themselves will hopefully inspire younger viewers to look at science and mathematics with a fresh perspective. No damsels in distress or charming princes here.

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From a storytelling perspective, tackling serious subjects like loss and grief imbue Big Hero 6 with heavy sincerity that thankfully never crosses into sanctimony. The lessons Hiro learns go far beyond the classroom, but the presence of lovable, electronic galoot Baymax helps balance the drama with welcome doses of laughter.

Witnessing zaftig, marshmallowy Baymax get outfitted with a nifty, Iron Man-worthy suit of techno armor is nearly as hilarious as watching what happens when his battery runs low. He’s the unequivocal star of the show, and a marketer’s dream. Prepare to see an onslaught of Baymax stuffed animals, pillows, beanbag chairs, Happy Meal toys and then some in time for the holiday shopping season. What might surprise you, however, is your desire to snag a souvenir for yourself.

Big Hero 6 hits theaters nationwide Nov. 7

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