‘Big Hero 6’: Woman Up

[caption id="attachment_16271" align="aligncenter" width="200"]U.S. release poster. U.S. release poster.[/caption]
Written by Andé Morgan.
Big Hero 6 (2014) is a cinematic snack, lighter fare to counterbalance heavier offerings like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), much in the same way that Wall-E (2008) contrasts with The Terminator (1984), or a pile of disgusting feces compares with Jack and Jill (2011). Still, the film does touch on universal themes that adults will appreciate: the trials of adolescence, grief, our wonder at science, and our fear of unrestrained technological development.
Other recent Disney animated films, like Planes: Fire and Rescue (2014), and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day (2014), were not, for good reason, box office or critical darlings. But Big Hero 6 is different — it’s an offspring of Disney’s 2009 union with Marvel. Like Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Big Hero 6 draws on a little-known corner of the Marvel universe. Directors Don Hall and Chris Williams took the heart of that original comic and created a Happy-Meal-ready sequel factory. Thankfully, they left the spandex boob socks and impractical armor behind.
[caption id="attachment_16272" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Yeah, this OG Gogo Tomago... Yeah, this is OG Gogo Tomago…[/caption]
The story is set in the fictional city of  “San Fransokyo.” While the name is a bit clumsy, the visual fusion of Bay Area landmarks and American and Asian architecture is beautifully done. The influence of Japanese comics and science fiction is tastefully overprinted on all the animation, and it works. I wish I could say the same for the character design. While adequate, it suffers from the same Disney animation facial blandness found in Frozen (2013) and Wreck-It Ralph (2012).
[caption id="attachment_16275" align="aligncenter" width="300"]This should be IRL. This should be IRL.[/caption]

If you’ve ever seen a Disney animated movie, particularly one of the more recent ones, then you already know the plot beats to Big Hero 6. This is too bad, because after establishing an interesting origin story, screenwriters Robert Baird, Daniel Gerson, and Jordan Roberts let the effort devolve into a decidedly unoriginal superheroes vs. villain story. Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) is a 14-year-old orphan (of course) and robotics prodigy, although the puffy robotic heart of the film is Baymax (Scott Adsit), who resembles (at least to this child of the 80s) a futuristic Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Despite an appearance that may appear androgynous to Westerners, Hiro is definitely a male protagonist, and this is definitely not Frozen. However, gender plays little role in his actions or interactions, and this is where the film really shines.

After rescuing Hiro from certain doom, his brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney), takes Hiro to the robotics lab at the local R1 university. There he meets Tadashi’s friends and fellow students (who will later become his wrecking crew) and the department head, Professor Callaghan (James Cromwell). Hiro is impressed by the tech, and very badly wants to join Tadashi in college. In order to gain entrance, he competes in a pro-level science fair. He wins, of course, but tragedy ensues and sets the stage for the rest of the movie.

The cast of characters is diverse. In a subtle and pleasantly subversive move, the only white male characters of note are the “villains.” The Black character, Wasabi (flatly voiced by Damon Wayans), did come off a little token-ish, but it’s hard to level that accusation considering the diversity of the entire cast. Also, I have to credit the writers for avoiding race or gender-based humor throughout. This film does not have exceptional voice acting, animation, or story, but it does stand out in one other major way: the relative parity between male and female characters. And I don’t just mean numerical parity, I mean parity in the intent and essence of the roles.
[caption id="attachment_16273" align="aligncenter" width="640"]From left to right: Fred, Gogo, Baymax, Hiro, Honey Lemon, and Wasabi. From left to right: Fred, Gogo, Baymax, Hiro, Honey Lemon, and Wasabi.[/caption]
Several main characters, and an important ancillary character, are women. Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph), is Hiro and Tadashi’s guardian. She’s a single mother, and not once does she complain about it. No references are made to some horrible tragedy involving her former husband; there are no jokes about her wanting a man. Rather, she’s shown as a happy, competent business owner and caretaker.
The female team members are often shown as being more capable then the males, both as combatants and as scientists. Gogo Tomago (Jamie Chung), and Honey Lemon (Génesis Rodríguez), are two bright, young scientists who exhibit strength of mind, body, and will. During a training montage, Gogo uses the phrase “woman up” to encourage one of her teammates to do better. This was a great, subversive line because it flowed naturally from the character and the context, rather than seeming like a forced injection of faux-feminism. Also of note, the villain’s daughter, Abigail (Katie Holmes), is depicted as a brave test pilot, and her fate is key to the film’s climax.
Big Hero 6 will most strongly appeal to older kids. The heavier questions may be lost on younger children, and some of the fight and chase scenes are a bit violent (bloodless, and no more so than similar films) and frenetic. Adults will (or at least should) appreciate the themes, the gender equity, and the racial diversity of the characters. Most importantly, the film excels at imparting a sense of wonder about science. By showing strong, capable female characters, this film will, I hope, encourage both girls and boys to develop an interest in science.
The film has a trim 102-minute running time, so a six-minute appetizer, Feast (2014), precedes it. The story is told from the visual perspective of a young Boston Terrier, and quickly jumps from a series of hungry-dog sight gags to a saccharine love-marriage-baby-carriage parable. Despite having the look of an experimental short, the animation and the story are deliberate, targeted, and all conventional Disney fluff.
Also on Bitch Flicks: Wreck-It Ralph is Flawed, But Still Pretty Feminist by Myrna Waldron

Andé Morgan lives in Tucson, Arizona, where they write about film, television, and current events. Follow them @andemorgan.