Tuesday, December 2, 2014
I finally got the chance to see Walt Disney Animation’s new film Big Hero 6 over the holiday weekend and wanted to write a bit about my thoughts. This won’t be as extensive as my Frozen review, but I definitely thought it deserved a bit of analysis and reflection. I’ll start by saying I went in not expecting much. I lack any knowledge of the original comic, (disclaimer) and action movies are very hit or miss for me, especially Marvel films. Captain America captivates my attention substantially more than Thor does. I can’t pinpoint the rhyme or reason but it does. In addition, I’ve tried to keep myself informed on trailers, concept art, and other publicity that could give me a clue as to how good this film would be, and as a result I saw things that got me excited and things that annoyed me. Therefore I tried to go in with an open mind and reasonable expectations, and was pleasantly surprised!
I’ll start with the positives and what I liked about Big Hero 6. I appreciated the unconventional family portrayed, as a pair of brothers being cared for by a busy aunt. We learn that the boys’ parents have died and Aunt Cass stepped in to provide guardianship, but nothing more about the situation. She’s not the most adept at childcare but you can tell her heart is in the right place. The truth is this situation isn’t as uncommon as audiences may think. In my experience, kinship care is the preferred option for children whose parents have died, are incarcerated, or even have had their children removed by child protective services. Oftentimes these guardians have the biological ties but are still must learn how to best care for children for a variety of reasons. I liked seeing the dynamic between Aunt Cass and the Hamada brothers. She seemed a bit eccentric but I like to believe she was really just doing the best she could with what she was given.
Moving on, one of my favorite sequences (aside from the flying sequence in the middle… this floored me more than the lantern scene in Tangled!) was the introduction of Tadashi’s “nerd lab” friends to Hiro. We meet GoGo Tomago, Wasabi, and Honey Lemon in an exciting scene in which they demonstrate their scientific contributions and unique personalities. They entice Hiro into wanting to be a part of the program with their friendliness and brilliance. Fred serves as the comedic relief, making the team all the more relatable to the audience.
This team of scientists was not only exciting to see in action, they were a diverse group in more ways than one. This has been one of the most consistent praises of the film so far, thankfully! It boasted not one, but TWO female scientists. I appreciated the social message this sent, as one was tough as nails and a bit tomboyish, while the other was girly, stylish, and sweet as, well, honey. This served to open up the concept of female superheroes rather than pigeonholing one into the “strong female” trope. It’s okay to like pink and high heels and chemistry at the same time. It’s also okay to fight sexist language by saying “woman up!” while fighting a super villain. I liked and appreciated that a lot.
I was also reminded of a tweet I saw a few months ago referring to Frozen and Elsa’s popularity. It mentioned that the reason Elsa may be so popular with girls is that she was more or less a female with awesome superpowers. This stuck with me when I watched the action sequences in BH6, and I was cognizant of how I was entranced and even envious of their scientific “powers” so to speak. It was awesome, and I hope filmmakers start to catch on to this obvious demand from their female audiences. Maybe then we’ll get Marvel movies with headlining female leads rather than a few females supplementing the many male title leads.
Last but not least, Wasabi was an ambitious, yet skeptical male character who showed that superhero dudes can be cautious and even nervous sometimes. The film doesn’t try too hard to prove anything about gender and science and fighting, yet because of that it totally works.
While I appreciated the diversity in race and gender in our main characters, I couldn’t help but notice a lack thereof in the background characters. For a city that is supposed to be a blend of San Francisco and Tokyo, there didn’t seem to be many Asian characters after the first scene, besides of course our protagonist siblings. The culture and architecture were incredibly fused but I would have loved to see more representation in that regard. Also, the use of CGI was both a blessing and a curse in my own humble opinion for this film. For the action and scenes with flight and robotics this format excelled. However, I’m still not sold on its ability to depict a wide range of humans in a satisfactory way. Honey Lemon and GoGo both screamed Rapunzel and Tadashi was a cookie-cut of Hans. It was a distraction to me, personally, and I really would like to see more risk taking in animation styles in human forms in subsequent films.
Another critique I have is the portrayal of Baymax as a fat comic relief character at times. I adored Baymax in general but there were several fat gags that made me uncomfortable, especially when I heard the theater laughing around me. The initial trailer showed him trying to chase a ball that he couldn't reach due to his body shape. While this was not in the actual film, the first draft of body armor definitely set him up to be a source of humor rather than an intimidating fighter. While I know this isn't the most atrocious joke, and Baymax ends up having more depth as a character than just a fat comedian, I still think these small aspects could be eliminated altogether for the benefit of promoting healthy body image and confidence.
To finish on a positive note (sort of), I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss the excellent character development around the concept of grief and loss. It’s not like Disney hasn’t covered this area before. Parental death has almost become the running joke and is almost more expected than unexpected by this point. And it’s no surprise it happens here but we also get the added death of Tadashi. While death itself isn’t new it is covered in a unique way. Hiro grieves along with his aunt and Tadashi’s group of friends but very separately. He’s only 13 and since his parents died when he was very young I can deduce that he didn’t really establish effective coping skills. He takes his time grieving while Aunt Cass and his friends voice concern and encourage him to begin moving on. In reality seeing someone hurting so much is painful in itself, so it’s natural to want to give them a little extra push. However, it’s important to remember the process is different for everyone and this pushing can actually make some people retreat even more.
The nice thing of introducing Baymax at this turning point in the film is his “personality” of robotic innocence. His friendly nature is inquisitive, effectively asking Hiro to think more about his grief and pain while explaining it to the healthcare companion. I love that Hiro’s emotional health is what’s important in this film rather than a physical ailment. This positive message about his grief and depression has the potential to help change the way people think about mental and emotional health. It is just as real and important and needs unique attention to begin healing. In this film Baymax acts as a collaborator, a conduit for internal inspection, and most importantly, a literal representation of his brother’s spirit and love.
My favorite scene in the film, as mentioned earlier, was the scene in which Hiro and Baymax test out his new flying feature and soar high above the gorgeous city of San Fransokyo. While experiencing pure bliss in the literal ability of flight, there was a short moment where he looked at his reflection holding onto Baymax in a window with a huge smile on his face – this was a flashback to earlier in the film when he looked at his reflection holding onto Tadashi while on an exciting chase from the police. It was such a short symbolic moment but it hit me pretty hard. Hiro had found a way to cope with his grief and discovered a friend in which he could see his brother’s legacy live on. The ending sequence where Baymax’s sacrifice to save Hiro and Abigail shadowed Tadashi’s sacrifice to save Callaghan made the symbolism all the more clear. The emotionality of this film felt genuine, and this is something I was definitely not expecting going in.
Well, this post ended up being much longer than I initially expected, but it seems appropriate for a film that pleasantly surprised me. I know I’m limited in my background knowledge of this comic so I’m interested to learn more about it and how Disney honored its origin while adding its own touch. As always, I’m glad to see steps forward in racial and gender diversity, and hope it fans the flame to encourage more of this obviously needed progression in the future. While the storyline was formulaic of its superhero genre, the visuals and added depth of grief, family, and friendship helped it feel more complete.