by Gabriel Valdez
There’s a moment in Big Hero 6, Disney’s new animated superhero film, when I was reminded why I like watching movies with live audiences instead of in critic screenings. Young Hiro has just flipped the switch on his sweet, rotund, inflatable robot Baymax, turning him from a friendly caretaker into a killing machine. In order to exact vengeance, Hiro momentarily erases any conscience the robot has. The next time Hiro tries this, Baymax refuses. You see, Hiro’s lost someone very close, and Baymax tries to teach Hiro to cope in a healthier way than just getting even.
It’s a touching scene that offers a glimpse into how deeply emotional something as silly as a computer-animated superhero comedy can be. I glanced around the theater. Critics would have been furiously scribbling in their notebooks. Instead, I saw a mother wipe away tears and a father badly pretend not to. I looked further and saw this reflected across the entire theater. Families leaned a foot closer to a screen 80 feet away and cried. I’d already given up on wiping away my own tears.
As an adaptation from a Marvel comic, Big Hero 6 is hilarious and full of creative action. It’s colorfully, brightly animated, written for both children and adults, and let me repeat: it is incredibly funny. It’s also a tremendous film about coping with loss, one of the most difficult subjects to talk about with children.
Hiro is a child prodigy. He invents robots in a California-Japan mishmash of a city called San Fransokyo. He’s content to hustle robot fighting leagues until older brother Tadashi inspires him toward college. Hiro is putting it all together until one key cog comes loose, and everything is taken from him. All Hiro is left with is a clue about the man responsible, and his brother’s robotic personal healthcare assistant Baymax, as large and squishy as he is well-meaning.
The two follow the clue, recruiting help from Hiro’s inventor friends and, once they realize they’re out of their depth, recasting themselves as a team of superheroes with Baymax at the center.
If you’ll follow me on a tangent, Disney (like Pixar) runs a short animated film before each feature. Big Hero 6 gives us a treat with “Feast.” It’s the story of a dog rescued off the street who changes the direction of a man’s life. It is easily the best pairing of animated short and feature film either Pixar or Disney has ever made – “Feast” sets the theme and level of emotion for the bigger film that follows. What is Baymax, after all, if not a rescue? Take away the central mystery and the villain and the superheroics, and the emotional effect Baymax’s innocence and unconditional loyalty have on Hiro’s life are much the same.
Let’s get to that headline, though. How is superhero adventure Big Hero 6 like fantasy musical Frozen? There’s no singing, there’s no dancing, no talking snowmen or ice palaces. And yet, I felt the same way coming out of both of them. Endorphins had been kicking in the whole movie, I felt happier coming out than when I went in, and I’d been taken on a very complete emotional journey. I’m still feeling overwhelmed and incredibly charged by Big Hero 6 even as I edit this a day later.
Neither Disney film is a cinematic marvel, and they each lack the polish of a Dreamworks (How to Train Your Dragon) or proper Pixar (Brave) movie. Yet Big Hero 6 and Frozen are both more rough-and-tumble creative propositions, less finely tuned and more willing to make mistakes. They each bite off more than they can chew, yet find a way to rise to the occasion. They each make up for some occasionally simplified animation with well-defined characters, improvised elements, and plots that are incredibly full of heart. If there were an Oscar for Best Crowd Pleaser, the two Disney animations would walk away with it two years running.
The Big Hero 6 by the way? That team consists of African-American, Caucasian, Japanese, Korean, Latin-American, and robot characters. Three men, two women, one robot. Including more diverse casts of characters not only provides a wider range of role models for children to look up to, it’s also one of the easiest ways of making the world of a film feel bigger and more real. It’s one less suspension of disbelief rested on an audience’s shoulders. Given the response I saw, I’d say it works.
Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?
This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.
1. Does Big Hero 6 have more than one woman in it?
Yes. Two of the heroes are GoGo, voiced by Jamie Chung, and Honey Lemon, voiced by Genesis Rodriguez. (They all have silly names like that. The hero’s name is Hiro, for godssakes, although that’s lifted from Snow Crash). There’s also Hiro’s guardian, his Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph).
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?
Yes. They talk about science and technology, plan how to foil a villain, and argue over whether they’ll make it out of precarious situations. They also engage in group conversations in which women and men address the group at large.
As I was researching the film, I found an early interview indicating GoGo and Honey Lemon would have a petty rivalry over the boys’ attentions. Somewhere along the line, that got ditched, and I couldn’t be happier. Who are they without that petty rivalry? They’re both inventors, geniuses, technically apt, and good in a fight. GoGo is a laconic daredevil, Honey Lemon a stylish nerd.
When they become superheroes, GoGo uses magnetic levitation roller blades and hurls discs at enemies as if she saw Tron and took it as a challenge. Honey Lemon enters chemical formulas onto a keypad on her purse, which then dispenses the correct concoction. She can toss a ball of ice, sticky goo, or hardened shields at a moment’s notice.
As for the men, Wasabi has energy swords and Fred can jump high and breathe fire. That’s fun and all, but the women are far more exciting. GoGo’s scenes offer a lot of high-speed movement and stunts. Since Honey Lemon uses chemical reactions to fight, you don’t exactly know what she’s going to do – that always makes for an intriguing brand of action. Yeah, she uses her purse, but a purse that creates chemical reactions at will to let you fight as you want? Hell, I walked out of the theater wanting one of those.
I’ll admit, GoGo is now one of my favorite superheroes. At one point, she tells a fretting Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.) to “Woman up.” This later becomes a catchphrase she uses when she does something especially superheroic. I imagine my niece running around and shouting, “Woman up,” treating the phrase as the absolute essence of toughness and bravery. That is an incredibly big deal.
Additionally, on that diversity I mentioned earlier – Big Hero 6 is based on a Japanese comic in which nearly all the characters are Japanese. Obviously, that’s going to change in an American adaptation. It’s just what happens, and the same thing happens in reverse when American material is adapted in other countries. There’s nothing wrong with that. Cultures adapt and cast specifically to speak to their own demographics.
In this adaptation, however, Hiro’s family is Japanese, GoGo is Korean, Honey Lemon is Latin-American, Wasabi is African-American, and Fred is Caucasian. Where Frozen tackles issues of gender equality head-on and makes it an issue for certain characters, in Big Hero 6, no one ever has an attitude that someone can’t do something because of ethnicity or gender. It’s never even mentioned.
Both approaches are valuable. Frozen forces audience members to confront the way in which traditional media presents women as weak, helpless, and in need of saving. In Big Hero 6, equality just seems an everyday normality, and you get to spend two hours experiencing what that world is like.
That in itself is a powerful statement, and I can’t applaud the multitude of writers, directors Don Hall and Chris Williams, and casting director Jamie Sparer Roberts enough for how they designed this cast and these characters.
As moving as the film is itself, it’s even more extraordinary when you take into account how rare an approach to casting and character treatment this is in something that cost $165 million to make. I can’t recall a big-budget film ever doing diversity this well. Period.