Cartoons are supposed to be non-threatening. They are supposed to be warm, soft, and inviting. It’s a medium we designed to keep our children entertained and inspired, so the more cute and cuddly they are, the better. To that end, it’s hard to envision a better non-threatening entity than the icon in the middle of Walt Disney’s latest animated film. He’s a plump, happy, caring, snuggly being…as non-threatening as it gets.
What’s really cool is when a good storyteller can use this sort of loveable avatar to tell a story laced with a lot of dark truth.
BIG HERO 6 is the story of Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter). Ryan is gifted in the field of robotics at the tender age of 14, but doesn’t seem to want to do much with his talents besides hustle money through robot fights. Seeing Hiro going adrift, his older brother Tadashi tried to inspire him. He unveils to him a project he is working on at San Fransokyo Institute of Technology (“SFIT”) – a personal health care robot named Baymax. Seeing what Baymax is capable of, and all of the other ideas at play in Tadashi’s lab, Hiro is indeed sparked to dream big. Quickly his goal becomes to think of a great idea that will gain him enrolment SFIT.
Hiro’s big idea is actually a small one: microbots. At SFIT’s conference he presents the idea that a robot the size of a screw is capable of great things – not on its own mind you, but in concert with thousands of other like robots. Using a headband that transmits the instructions telepathically, a user is able to make these microbots come together to perform all manner of tasks. Prof. Callaghan (James Cromwell), the head of SFIT is impressed, so too is Alistair Krei (Alan Tudyk) – an entrepreneur who wants to buy the design from Hiro on the spot. However, Hiro decides that his work is not for sale and accepts the university enrolment offered.
The excitement is short-lived, however, as a fire breaks out at the conference. The fire sparks an explosion, which takes the life of Callaghan, along with Tadashi who was attempting to rescue him.
While deeply distraught, Hiro finds himself in the midst of a puzzle after the disaster. He happens to activate Baymax by accident, and also finds the one remaining microbot that wasn’t destroyed in the fire. While Hiro believes the microbot is defective, Baymax suggests that it is actually trying to reunite with the other microbots. As the pair follow the microbot’s direction like a compass, they discover a secret lab where the rest of the microbots are in fact present and being utilized. They are at the whim of a mysterious figure in a kabuki mask, one who doesn’t seem eager to welcome visitors.
Hiro doesn’t want to see his invention exploited, so he turns to Tadashi’s friends for help – Wasabi, Honey Lemon, GoGo, and Fred. Hiro trips-out their inventions and turns each one into de-facto superheroes. Likewise, he tweaks Baymax’s design and gives him the ability to fight, defend, and fly. Armed with a whole arsenal of wonderful toys, this newly formed Big Hero 6 goes in-search of Kabuki Mask, hoping to solve a mystery before people get hurt.
It seems as though lately, animation has remembered that the brightest light can come in the darkest moments. BIG HERO 6 has learned this lesson too as it shows Hiro’s deep struggle with the loss of his brother. While children are far more resilient than us lowly grown-ups, a death to someone so important can take a deep toll on them. This animated film might be the first to specifically identify depression in a child, and does everything short of specifically naming it. Such ideas never would have flown in the past, since we barely had the stones to own up to it ourselves…let alone in our children. Seeing Hiro work through those feelings gives this movie an unexpected amount of weight.
In fact, the film’s greatest flaw might be that it chickens out from going further down the road of dealing with consequences. However, in a world where too many parents want to shield their children from such things, we’ll have to take what we can get.
That weight becomes a great counterbalance to the bright and glossy world of San Fransokyo. Were we just to spend two hours in this place that seems to be ripped right out of EPCOT Center, guided by an android who could be third cousins with The Stay Puff’d Marshmallow Man, we might have come away with the same sort of stomach ache we get after eating too many sour keys. However, the way the film takes a breath now and then to remind us of the costs our characters have had to pay, it makes for the perfect tonic. Therefore we are able to look back on our time in this world with fondness, instead of having flashbacks to stomach aches and hangovers.
There’s a great message at the centre of BIG HERO 6 about responsibility in technology. Hiro experiences one side of it when he fears what his microbots will be used for in the hands of Kabuki Mask. He then experiences the other side when he tries to push Baymax beyond his core directive. In both cases we see something that was designed with noble ideas being used for ill-intent. While people like Hiro and Tadashi have a responsibility to consider the consequences when they let these sorts of genies out of their bottles, we have to remember that their responsibility stops at a certain point and then becomes our responsibility. When we take something someone thought might make the world a better place and use it for our own selfish interests, we are being disrespectful of the blood and sweat they put into it.
At the centre of BIG HERO 6 is a classic comic book “team-up” squad: something akin to The Avengers of The Justice League. However, what makes this particular squad special is the way it evokes the grander support network that has wrapped around Hiro in an effort to bring out his potential. Talent like his doesn’t often flourish on its own. Instead it’s the job of peers, parents, mentors, and parents to provide inspiration and support. In this case, the network is even bolstered by the presence of Baymax who is all-at-once a muse and a surrogate. So while a lesser story could have pitted these five spunky kids against a great evil and call it a day, the creators of this film have found its centre…and its centre just so happens to be a warm gooey one.