This essay contains spoilers.
Disney’s Big Hero 6 is sold as a superhero team action adventure. Really though it’s a touching meditation on brotherhood, loss, and the dangers and benefits of technological advancement; the super heroics are a bit of a diversion tactic. Whilst there may be some few elements of this movie that aren’t quite successful, the overall piece is more than enjoyable enough to make me a big fan.
The setting of the film is an alternate version of San Francisco with heavy Japanese influences called San Fransokyo, and it is such an immersive and unique environment that it rivals Gotham or Metropolis as a location for super heroic frivolity. The remodelled Golden Gate bridge, the sky-high wind turbines, the combination of San Franciscan and Japanese architecture, there is so much iconic world-building in the movie that I just want to jump through the screen to explore the city. There are also plenty of meta-references and jokes in the film, especially during the scene setting first half, that serve to make this world a very pleasant place to escape to for a while, even if the story itself is shot through with tragedy.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the film is the extent to which it explores the emotional turmoil that follows the death of a loved one. Hiro and his brother Tadashi are established early on as orphans living with their aunt Cass, they have already seen family tragedy and it is still visible under the surface. Its influence on Tadashi has been to make him a good man, one who wants more than anything to help people. Hiro on the other hand is somewhat adrift, but it is Tadashi’s belief in him, and support of him even when he does the wrong thing, that encourages Hiro to do something with his life. The movie takes it’s time to build the relationship between the brothers and it is a wise choice, we come to better understand Tadashi and what he wants for his Hiro, and this only makes his untimely death that much more powerful. There is an immediacy to Hiro’s grief that is not often present in superhero origin stories, Hiro can’t just escape the world for almost a decade like Bruce Wayne did, we don’t pick up the story years later we live through this bereavement with him. This makes the emotional attachment Hiro develops to Baymax much more powerful too. Baymax is not just a technological wonder he is the embodiment of his brother’s good nature, and he will always be there to support Hiro.
And like Baymax himself the other technology of this world is magnificent; when Tadashi shows Hiro around the ‘nerd-lab’ at his university we see some incredible stuff (electromagnetic bicycles, laser grids, some kind of crazy ionised powdered paint) and the films discourse on technological discovery is a positive one. The emphasise throughout the movie is on the helpfulness and potential benefits of technology, that inventors and scientists like Tadashi often strive to do good through their work. Even when technology can be subverted and used for evil or selfish means, as Callaghan and Krei seek to do with the micro-bots and the portals, Tadashi’s message to both Hiro and Baymax (and the audience) is to keep trying to do the right thing. Often times we are presented with technology as an enemy, the scientist as a monster, so it is good to get an alternative view. If there is a failing here it is only that Tadashi is such a brilliantly winning character, he is warm, heartfelt, and sincere, that I really didn’t want him to be die – much like Uncle Ben is for Peter Parker, Tadashi is Hiro’s heart, and he kind of stole mine.
At the university we are also introduced to the supporting cast; this is a pleasingly diverse movie, besides the lead being of asian descent the group includes asian, black, hispanic, and white characters two of whom are women. These characters are all warm, funny, and smart, and every scene they have together is rewarding. Their friendships come across as realistic, and the way they support each other and especially Hiro through his grief is believable and touching. Of the group my personal favourite was Gogo “time to woman up!” Tomago (and I really really want one of her magnetic bikes!), but each character is sufficiently well drawn (despite limited screen time) that I can imagine anyone of them being someone’s favourite. The chance to see these friends become a team of heroes was a big selling point for this movie, and I was even more excited now that I liked them all so much.
Sadly Big Hero 6 fails to deliver on this promise as the teamwork is patchy at best. We are lead to expect an origin story for this group of new heroes but the buddy movie about Hiro and Baymax takes a lot of the focus off of the other characters. For Hiro and Baymax we get to learn their origins, we watch them grow as characters, and we see how they will survive in a world without Tadashi, but for the others in the group we get to see their inventions and not much else. It was very surprising to me that Hiro was the one who ‘weaponised’ all of their tech, these characters are all super smart and eager to help, but rather than have them turn up with their own costumes and ideas Hiro assigns them heroic identities based on their inventions rather than their personalities (except Fred). What if Wasabi prefers long-range combat, or Gogo doesn’t have the reflexes for high-speed roller skating? There is no reason that Wasabi couldn’t have been the one using the goo-balls and Honey Lemon the laser gauntlets other than that they invented similar-ish things earlier in the movie. To me this essentially robs these characters of much of their agency and that seems odd for a film about embracing your abilities to do good. Sure, there is an argument that they only agree to take part in the first place to help Hiro through his pain, and that none of them would have invented superhero characters (again except Fred), but then that is even more problematic if they continue to humour a kid who could get himself and them killed.
And then there is the incredibly disappointing training montage (even despite the butler, Heathcliff, being a lot of fun in this sequence). The gang each take one faltering step with their new gear and then are immediately experts. This is a wasted opportunity to see them growing accustomed to their superhero identities and perhaps including some of their own personality in their gear and combat style rather than having Hiro doing it. This sequence also lays the foundations for the teamwork problem that will undermine the ending as everyone exclusively trains alone. In their first fight with Yokai the gang get beaten because they each go their own way and take it in turns to try to defeat him. One would be forgiven for assuming that this would lead to a rematch where the team work much more closely together, perhaps using each others powers to compliment their own and take down the villain through smart collaboration. Instead we just get each of them going in a separate direction again and having to face off against Yokai’s micro-bots in their own way. Sure this comes together in as much as they reduce the number of available micro-bots Yokai has, but it never really feels like the team is anything other than a distraction so that Hiro and Baymax can do the real super heroics.
The reveal of Callaghan as the villain Yokai is also slightly problematic and doesn’t quite carry the emotional heft it ought to. This should be a significant moment, the idol that both Tadashi and Hiro looked up to (that Tadashi even died trying to save) is actually a violent thief. The kabuki mask comes off (a brilliant design by the way) and Callaghan is just there; we get an all too brief flashback to the fire as Callaghan uses the micro-bots to survive, but no sign of Tadashi in the building and no clear explanation for how the fire even started. Hiro’s reaction is an appropriately violent one and his immediate impulse is to demand that Baymax kill Callaghan. Hiro removes the Tadashi chip and Baymax goes into monster mode – this is an incredible sequence as the team try to stop an enraged Baymax from committing murder, the visuals and soundtrack are both really well executed and the moment is quite a frightening one. But the emotion in this sequence is tied to Baymax, and how Hiro has betrayed his brother’s memory by turning him into an attempted murderer, and that distracts from the Callaghan reveal to a large extent. This is then an issue because it clouds the arc for the superhero team and when coupled with the extremely dark reveal of Callaghan’s sympathetic motive for going rogue actually makes it really hard to celebrate the team’s victory. There can’t be a satisfying climax because there isn’t a clear villain for the team to defeat. Krei is a negligent corporate sell out but gets away with endangering Abigail Callaghan’s life just for profit, whilst the father avenging the potential manslaughter of his daughter and clearly mentally troubled as a result is arrested without even getting to speak to his suddenly still alive daughter. How do we cheer this ending?
Yes villains can be complex, and moral ambiguity can enhance a story, but this all seems a little off here and leaves the ending as a bit of a downer. Not to mention that super genius Callaghan has a weirdly convoluted plot. At the expo Callaghan is distrusting of Krei, but he doesn’t seem like a man whose will is bent on vengeance against the person he believes is responsible for his daughter’s death. Without revealing explicitly who started the expo fire the film leaves us with a curious scenario – upon seeing Hiro’s wondrous micro-bots does Callaghan immediately decide that they offer the only way to avenge Abigail’s death, does he immediately start a raging all-encompassing fire (with what I wonder), and does he immediately decide to fake his own death and create a masked personality to get elaborate ironic revenge on Krei by sending his new building through a reconstructed teleportation portal? That seems like an awfully sudden set of complex decisions by Callaghan – couldn’t he have just used the micro-bots once Hiro started his class at university? Whilst this is far from plot-breaking it does stretch credibility and reduce the impact of the entire third act, especially with the underwhelming team work we see from the Big Hero 6 themselves. That said, the closing of the emotional arc for Hiro and Baymax is very well handled. With the two of them stranded in the portal and an unconscious Abigail to save Hiro finally accepts that Tadashi lives on in him and in Baymax, and Baymax’s subsequent sacrifice is a powerful moment.
Big Hero 6 is an exciting and heroic story about coming to terms with intensely personal tragedy, and how that can corrupt some and ennoble others. There are flaws in the films structure, and problems with its team dynamic and villain, but overall it is an enjoyable viewing experience. The lead characters are simply joyful, Baymax is a delightful creation, the world is great, and the refreshingly diverse supporting cast are all a lot of fun. It is also pleasing to see science viewed as a net good for society. It isn’t perfect, but when it works Big Hero 6 is a heck of a lot of fun – I really liked this movie.