Why Big Hero 6 is Disney’s Most Progressive Film Yet

Big Hero 6 tells the story of a whiz kid named Hiro who teams up with four faithful sidekicks and a gentle-giant robot to avenge his brother’s death. Though the plot seems formulaic, the film triumphs in its sensitive and creative treatment of modern-day concerns—diversity, technology, and mental health. Hiro’s psychological authenticity lends the film poignancy and weight, and the cast of diverse, stereotype-defying side characters provides progressive appeal. The result is a movie that couples traditional Disney themes with twenty-first century sensibilities.

Released last November, the animated film takes place in San Fransokyo, a beautiful fusion of San Francisco and Tokyo in which cherry blossoms adorn steep streets, and classical Japanese pagodas stand beside skyscrapers. Virtuoso artists created the setting with exquisite technique and impressive attention to detail.

The protagonist, Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter), is a fourteen-year old science wunderkind who aspires to follow in the footsteps of his talented older brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney). When Tadashi suffers an unjust death, Hiro solicits help from Baymax (Scott Adsit), an inflatable robot Tadashi programmed to be a healthcare companion. Baymax’s huggable figure and adorable face make him an unlikely candidate for a vengeance mission, but upgrades on his armor and technology render him a formidable vinyl warrior. Tadashi’s four best friends from “nerd school” soon join the squad, and the team of six sets out to exact revenge.

Although his plight and journey to heroism seem familiar, Hiro is a refreshing protagonist. By turns judgmental and sweet, angst-ridden and vivacious, he exhibits genuine flaws—and not always in ways you might expect. Throughout the film, Hiro’s altruistic instincts are tested by circumstance and obscured by his temper. Unpredictability and cynicism make Hiro one of the most believable heroes to appear in animation.

The relationship between Hiro and Baymax is both the narrative and thematic centerpiece of the film. As a personal healthcare companion, Baymax’s default state is to care for others. But like all machinery, he remains susceptible to human manipulation. Under Hiro’s guidance, Baymax learns as rapidly as a child, incorporating all new data—from the definition of a fist bump to martial arts moves—into his programming system. Soon, he becomes a flying, iron-clad superhero capable of harm and destruction. Beneath the charming scenes of friendship between Baymax and Hiro lies one of the film’s central questions: what happens when a machine programmed to heal is suddenly asked to destroy?

Without sacrificing entertainment, Big Hero 6 does a remarkable job of encouraging more progressive values in its target audience. Baymax’s concern with Hiro’s holistic wellbeing highlights the importance of both physical and mental health. When Hiro sinks into grief after Tadashi’s death, Baymax serves as a counselor of sorts, recommending different coping mechanisms, and indirectly reminding young audiences to seek help when needed.

The film’s diverse cast, which represents an almost utopian vision of racial equality, upends stereotypes. Each of Hiro’s four sidekicks is quirky in some way—there’s a feisty girl who loves telling Hiro to “woman up,” a neurotic guy preoccupied with maintaining order, a vagabond-wannabe, and an intellectual ditz—but all uphold their eccentricities with pride.

While the creators of Big Hero 6 handle many elements imaginatively, they occasionally succumb to cliché in the latter half of the movie. Some combat scenes are predictable, and Baymax loses credibility as a robot in an ending scene by revealing sentiments too profound to have been encoded.

Nonetheless, Big Hero 6 is a colorful and glorious celebration of difference. Without explicitly making the rejection of convention part of its agenda, it manages to transcend many traditional expectations of animated films.

***

Big Hero 6 will be available on DVD starting February 24th.

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