… so I left the last two parts of this article on a bit of a cliff hanger. And for that, I apologize. The simplest answer is that I wanted to discuss the film in depth but didn’t want to dissect it while worrying about spoilers – and now that it has been out for several weeks, I can let loose.
So, spoilers. You’ve been warned.
Despite the Orientalism that runs through the film, Big Hero 6 wins me over because it has heart. Heart that isn’t simply “feel good” Disneyisms, but actual heart that grapples with themes like loss, rage, acceptance, and healing. Big Hero 6 is mature. And not “mature” in the most immature way possible – through nudity, gore, and adolescent ‘adultness’ – but in the way the very best Pixar films and a select few of their contemporaries are. It has characters with nuanced, complex feelings and relationships. It doesn’t borrow from Hamlet (Lion King) or other fairytales to do this – it just makes a good story with some simple elements.
A boy, his brother’s medical robot, and coming to terms with his grief. Hiro Hamada and Baymax – Baymax in particular – are the heart and soul of this picture. From the beginning we get a sort of Tony Stark or Steve Jobs vibe from Hiro – he’s a gifted but rebellious youth who has no interest in pursuing “normal” jobs or education, he’d rather rip off gangsters (Yakuza – hazy “oriental” gambling parlo… sorry, Orientalist criticism. Back to the story) in illegal robot fights. His brother convinces him to use his powers for good and apply to San Fransokyo’s technical institute, only to have him tempted to sell out his invention to a greedy capitalist who has a reputation for putting profit above morals or the safety of others. Cue the dramatic bombing/accident and the death of Hiro’s Brother. Mired in his grief, Hiro’s only distraction is the sudden reactivation of his Brother’s project – Baymax, a medical robot. Cue a series of misadventures and general comedy as Hiro tries to get a grip on this new person in his life, who arguably is here to “heal” Hiro’s injuries – the emotional scars from the death of his brother. This in and of itself is nothing truly new – Mrs. Doubtfire, Mary Poppins, The Cat in the Hat and countless others have come before as sorts of saviors for all sorts of children’s grief, problems, whatever. But Baymax does it with heart.
Baymax speaks with the wisdom of true innocence, a creature whose sole purpose is to heal. He breaks Hiro out of his shell and pushes him in a variety of new directions, motivating him to use his intellect for good – and inadvertently leading him onto the trail of the mysterious “Mister Kabuki Mask”…
From there, Baymax instigates a reunion with Hiro’s brother’s friends – now his friends – who are all willing to help Hiro track down the guy they believe is responsible for the death of Hiro’s Brother, and their teacher…. (although it’s fairly obvious this is a red herring, the film can be forgiven for using well-worn plot points when so much of the rest of it is stellar). And of course, they help Hiro confront the ugly truth that comes from pain, rage, and loss – revenge will not heal wounds, it only makes them fester, transforming you into something ugly. Sometimes uglier than the thing you hate. It’s these performances – even from “supporting” characters – that sell the film on an emotional and narrative level. They’re fun, refreshing, well executed performances that highlight the “simple” story of a boy and his robot dealing with grief and loss. Everything about them is excellent.
What truly excites me though is the freshness, the brightness, and the vibrancy of Disney’s animation. I seriously think this film is the start of another “Disney Renaissance” because of the quality not just of the script and its players, but in terms of excellence of the computer animation – an area that Disney has grappled with: Lilo & Stitch was hailed as “the last traditional animated feature” but then the underperformance of films like Treasure Planet and Atlantis (which deviated strongly from Disney styles and/or used hybrid CGI based animation), coupled with mostly modest features like Bolt has left Disney to rely heavily on Pixar for its financial success in recent years. But everything in Big Hero 6 is outstanding from a technical standpoint – at times I forgot I was watching animation simply because the use of CGI and stylization was implemented so well. The crowds, the backgrounds, everything worked the way it was supposed to. The best FX are supposed to be the ones you forget about – and in this way Big Hero 6 does things even Pixar has avoided: making genuinely well designed human characters. Aside from Up, Pixar never really focused on human leads – Toy Story, Finding Nemo, WALL*e, and Monsters Inc. may have featured some humans in their stories, but always at the margins or as foils to the main characters. Big Hero 6 tackles them with panache and an ease that makes you forget Disney switched from cell animation to CGI. On a technical level, the film is simply incredible.
Does this mean the film is to be forgiven for problematic overtones? No. Clever acting, a well written script, and stellar animation can’t hide the fact that Big Hero 6 raises some troublesome questions in my mind about the implication of Asian culture(s) as “window dressing” to be pulled off of the shelves of a prop department. But I also can’t ignore the emotional and intellectual impact the film has on me either. Truthfully, the only thing I can do is be mindful of my experiences and determine for myself what I can and cannot support… and do what I can to foster a discussion amongst others about what I see and why. It’s not my place to protect or claim authority over the elements of another person’s culture, lest I perpetuate a history of paternalism that robs those with the rightful agency and authority to their own self determination.
Ultimately all I can do as an anthropologist is make the observation and inspire others to think for themselves.