This is a film for which it is all too easy to write the obvious one-paragraph review.
Big Hero 6 is a wonderfully imaginative romp through the near-future world of San Fransokyo, with lovable characters and engaging action sequences that will be fun for the whole family.
The response from my friends over on facebook has had just this kind of bland, non-specific enthusiasm for something that is fun and basically harmless. The reviews that have “pushed the envelope” have thoughtfully nodded at how it “treats” grief and community. This film is almost totally pure wish-fulfilling fantasy, and while I enjoyed every minute of this film, in the few days afterwards I had almost a kind of sugar-hangover. It does such a good job at being a fun distraction trumpeting a simplistic overt moral message that it’s easy to miss some of the structures which make it possible – in that respect, the film is much like its subject.
There are several different templates as we could apply when thinking about the film as a whole, but for me the dominant one was the Super Hero Origin story, which must surely be reaching market saturation point. A young hero suffers a loss, decides super-powers are how the problem is solved, and conveniently there is a super-villain behind it all, so voila. Like all such films, the basic ideological message here is that grief is a transformational force, and that only through the achievement of revenge and hence justice (note that order or priority!), can meaning be found in the loss. In fact though, that loss then comes to be the defining identity of the sufferer. By creating and perpetuating a super-hero identity as a response to grief, it enshrines that loss almost as a defining spiritual tennet for the rest of their life. Batman is the worst offender – unable to move past the death of his parents, he is trapped in the revenge-wish of his childish self. This is why, for me, Captain America is a much more palatable hero than Superman – he is driven by a positive vision of personal achievement and change, rather than the burden legacy of cultural annihilation.
In the case of Hiro, this archetypal experience is deepened in two major ways. Prior to the revenage-motif dominating his destiny, his primary interest was in fighting robots – in the opening sequences he gets an obvious joy from using his superior technology to crush his opponent. He uses this as a money-making hustle, presmably folding his profits back into s obviously-expensive technology. His brother attempts to free him from this cycle by showing him a better way. Instead of devoting himself to warfare, he can engage in peaceful scientific discovery. Hiro is immediately persuaded, but just as he is about to join this way of life, the central tragedy strikes. The nett effect of this is that in his zeal for revenge, he commandeers his brothers’ peaceful scientific colleagues into the new super-hero team he dubs “Big Hero 6” at the film’s end. In his quest for revenge, he completes the destruction of his brother’s scientific legacy begun by the nominal villain of the film.
I think the film-makers were aware of this tragedy, as when Hiro first arrives, they have a short sequence where each of the future members of the team explain what science isn’t – and it is precisely what they end up doing over the course of the film. The film ends with a voice-over from Hiro explaining that his brother’s vision was for Baymax to aid a lot of people – and Baymax will, as a member of this super-hero group. Of course, his brother was really thinking about the mass production of a robotic doctor, providing personalised healthcare to the general population. This is a large-scale enterprise which would only be possible with the kind of infrastructural investment made possible by Krei, whose factories are destroyed by the film’s villain. A single robot, tasked instead with “fighting crime” really helps nobody – another central tennet of the Super Hero genre.
This is a wonderfully subtle implementation of the base premise of the Revenger Tragedy. Who seeks revenge should dig two graves, because all that revenge leaves behind is carnage. The central revenge activities in this film totally destroy everything that existed as wholesome and productive at the film’s start. The Baymax project is derailed from assisting the sick to “fighting crime”, the robotics institute is destroyed and its star scientists rediverted into things explicitly identified as non-scientific, the great rival of the institute which was nevertheless a great industrial power, is destroyed… and yet the film’s absolute commitment to positivity and sugar-coating finishes on a triumphal note so that I doubt more than 1% of the audience notices that the revenge is almost entirely complete on both sides. Genius.
The second key structure at work is the idea of rebirth. When the super-hero is created, he usually foregoes his original name. Bruce Wayne becomes Batman. Even heroes who publically retain their identities change from being “Reeve Richards” into “Mr Fantastic”, as part of the “Fantastic Four”. In Big Hero 6, they do not establish alternate names, but they are neverthless transformed, undergoing significant personality shifts in their super-hero identity. The person who undergoes the most transformation is… Tagashi. Hiro’s murdered brother is almost literally reincarnated into Baymax, who keeps insisting “Tagashi is here”. In the film’s early sequences, Tagashi tries to change Hiro from the thrill-seeking robot-fighting hustler into a scientist, but when he is reincarnated as a robot he becomes totally pliable to Hiro’s whims. Hiro can simply and directly reprogramme his brother’s reincarnation, for example by programming him with Karate.
Hiro is completely blind to his activities, exhibiting almost no self-awareness at any time. From his perspective, he needs a tool for his revenge and is entirely blind to the implications of repurposing Baymax. It is strongly suggestive of the idea that, in truth, he never really understood his brother’s motivations or thought-processes. His love was a kind of blind and generic one. Isn’t that just the archetypal image of the teenager? Self-absorbed to the point of danger. Tagashi selflessly risked his own life to try and save a friend and colleague, but Hiro causes his friends to risk their lives in service of his goals of revenge – ultimately, Tagashi as Baymax sacrifices himself for a second time without Hiro recognising the true heroism on display. By allowing Hiro to be the protagonist and surrounding his achievements with a triumphal tone, the film implicitly endorses Hiro’s limited perspective that effectively gaining super-powers is more important than the end to which they will be put.
I think there is no question that this film is intended to read in the same way as any other triumphal super-hero story. A noble kid, who after a rough start to his life, uses his talents and powers for good viz. becoming a super-hero and fighting crime. I think that the shiny surface of the film will entertain people endlessly – it may not be a true classic in the order of The Incredibles, but it is still a very accomplished piece as far as all the technical stuff goes. The dialogue is snappy, the jokes are funny, the action sequences are exciting – all that surface stuff is great. That it has this entirely subversive reading just below the surface is a sign of either me misreading chronically, or much greater sophistication than you’d expect from the film-makers of such apparent candyfloss.