I must have been in the wrong mood when I saw Big Hero 6 in the theater. My recollection was “meh” but when I viewed it again for a Film and Theology event for a room full of junior high and high school students, it blew my mind…visually, narratively, and with all the obvious parallels to the story I hold most dear. It also served as a great way to introduce fresh, new minds to the idea of seeing recurring themes. Now, I think it holds one of my top slots for Disney animated films, right next to Wreck-it Ralph.
Let’s start with the obvious…
Everybody has this odd desire to see something “new” when they just want something “fresh”. Just like everyone was freaking out about Frozen (finally! A strong female character!) when we’d already had a strong female character in Mulan over a decade before. There’s nothing new under the sun, and yet that doesn’t undermine a great character. For instance, I loved Go Go Tomago in Big Hero 6, but many times movies feature recurring character types. We don’t have to go far to see a similar character chronologically, or visually:
Heck, Go Go and Wildstyle from The Lego Movie almost share the same hairstyle. There’s nothing wrong with a strong, empowered, sarcastic girl who freshens the narrative by poking fun at the central character. Just don’t try to say it’s “original”. It’s archetypal. I mean, at least they didn’t copy the exact same formula and have her take the wheel during the film’s first major vehicular chase scene…
I admit, that’s a cheap trick, but let’s face facts that characters and themes repeat, both on the surface level AND in the subtext. With that in mind, let’s move on to look at the alleged hero of the piece, conveniently named “Hiro”. We’re introduced to the younger Hamada brother as he’s engaging in illegal gambling via robot fights. His older brother Tadashi (and the film’s narrative) knows Hiro is wasting his life, and risking it too. Proverbs says “there is a way that seems right to a man, that leads to destruction” and Hiro is on that path. Right at the beginning of the film, his older brother has to save him from some major pain…or worse.
Hiro’s path is no different than other young protagonists in stories that go back decades, even centuries. You don’t have to even leave the Marvel universe they share to find a gifted teenager who starts out using his abilities to make a buck, squandering them instead of seeing the greater purpose they contain. Spider-man started squandering his talents on wrestling tournaments for quick cash, and that tied in to some unhappy outcomes for his interactions with criminals and his ill-fated uncle.
Tadashi Hamada could rightly rebuke his younger brother, but instead seeks to “restore him gently” – a very Christian tenet. Using a very Christ-like method, his big brother seeks to steer Hiro along a different path, taking him to the University and simply showing him a more excellent way.
In the Christian faith, every believer has an older brother. We may not often hear of Jesus Christ referred to in that way, but as the Son of God who brings us into the family of God by his sacrifice, adopted “co-heirs” the whole concept is that brothers and sisters in Christ all owe their life and path to their older brother, Jesus.
While the narrative flow of this film doesn’t have Tadashi specifically lay down his life for Hiro, we see the heart of his brother is one of self sacrifice, as he runs into the building to save others. Take it a step further: Hiro lost his parents when he was only three years old. He hardly knew them. His Aunt Kass is like a mom, but who’s been a father to Hiro? Easy answer: Tadashi. So, we have a big brother who:
Shepherds his little brother gently toward a life-giving path.
Shows his brother the love of a father.
Lays down his life.
Sends a message and a presence that remains after he is gone.
This really isn’t a stretch, and the parallel only gets deeper as we go on. But suffice to say, it sums up our first big idea:
Getting deeper into the story, we see the brother who is now “absent” hasn’t left our Hiro alone. Jesus told his disciples that even when He was not present with them, they would be comforted.
Christ sends the comforter to care for us…to remind us of the right way, and the truths we so often forget. Baymax serves all these purposes and more for Hiro, seeking his care. Not just care of body, but also of spirit.
Baymax is a spirit of compassion who lifts Hiro’s spirit. The Holy Spirit is called counselor, intercessor, advocate, strengthener, and standby. Tadashi’s cuddly legacy becomes a part of Hiro’s life as if the Spirit of his brother was still with him.
We see this comfort work wonders in the narrative of Big Hero 6. When Hiro flies on Baymax for the first time, it parallels the first flight of Tony Stark in Iron Man, or the first flight of Hiccup and Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon. Dumbo, Peter Pan, Man of Steel, even a classic like The Rocketeer…the list goes on and on. Big Hero 6 captures that essence of being lifted higher, of pure exultation.
In my mind, Tadashi is the REAL hero of Big Hero 6.
Hiro is certainly the central character, but it’s like watching a disciple follow in the wake of the true hero, who has left all the necessary pieces behind for the pursuit of that mission. Baymax also prescribes another remedy, and that’s for others to come around Hiro as well. In classic narrative form, he gets a new family not born of blood, but born of mission. Jesus said the same thing about his disciples when asked about his family:
And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” – Mark 3
The movie gives us a family of very different shapes and sizes, young men and women with different backgrounds and different gifts, each having their own part and their own fit. It emphasizes what biblical scripture tells us in places like Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12: that we’re not supposed to be the LONE hero, lone ranger, going it ourselves… we’re a family, all working together, and each one has their unique part. Beyond that, the mission must be specific. In the middle of their first conflict with the enemy, Wasabi asks a very important question:
At first, Hiro and his friends are using their gifts individually. Each one is taking their own shot, and they totally fail because they really aren’t working together. They don’t have a defined course of action or a common goal. In fact, at that point Hiro has the WRONG GOAL. If they don’t figure out the right direction, they’re doomed, because the enemy is very real.
It’s not as simple as just coming together and celebrating each other’s gifts. Big Hero 6 recognizes the need to see that there is truly evil in the world, and not only that, but that while sometimes it may seem dark and foreboding, masked and sinister…
…it might not have the face we expect. It might seem friendly, even out for our best interests. We must be cautious and discerning. The enemy might even be something we think we WANT to be, and we might find out that our heart and motivations aren’t so different. This is where Big Hero 6’s narrative takes another reflective plot turn, regarding Hiro’s plans:
Hiro tries to use his brother’s legacy, his friends, and his gifts to exact revenge. Baymax even asks “Is this what Tadashi wanted?” Clearly, it is not. As the story unfolds, this toxic direction is brought to the surface when we realize the villain’s motivation is the very same thing. Hiro is falling into the very trap that turned the villain’s heart so dark. The villains motivation is spoken clearly:
This clarifies the film’s next point:
It’s not noble or celebratory simply to “have a mission in life”. There are right missions and wrong missions.
So many “revenge flicks” in our culture simply play this out and call the protagonist righteous in his vengeance. I’m so glad Big Hero 6 transcends this and, instead of a revenge flick, gives us a redemption flick.
What if the film’s antagonist had focused his anguish into seeking and saving the person he had lost? So much energy wasted in the wrong direction. Hiro chooses the other path, turning from revenge and killing and actually bringing back the lost child that so enraged the villain. With the inspiration of his big brother and the help of his “spirit” in Baymax, Hiro is able to serve and sacrifice in a very Christ-like way. And just to hammer all our parallels home with one big explosive fist, we have another sacrifice…and another promise:
The words echo with resonance to Christ’s promise, and isn’t that what we all want in some fashion? A loving sibling who will always be with us, even beyond the grave, sending help and comfort and ultimately providing the family and home that seems so impossible in the broken world we live in. Is the hopes and promises of Big Hero 6 just Disney dreams, or do they have substance in the supernatural reality that Christians cling to so assuredly? I know my answer.
There are at least 5 deep lessons that emerge from what some might dismiss as a simply flight of superhero fancy, bringing us from fiction to a mythical truth that has substance in the Savior Christians herald. For those that only experience this kind of assurance in fiction, my question would be “are you satisfied with your care?”