Earlier this month, Disney released its newest film, Big Hero 6. In a departure from the princess fairytales the company is known for, Big Hero 6 follows Hiro Hamada, a 14-year-old genius and a superhuman team of college students to combat the masked villain responsible for his older brother’s death.
I know that you’re probably thinking: when it comes to Disney movies, there are bound to be problems with race, gender, and other forms of representation. While the film isn’t perfect, it actually stacks up incredibly well in comparison to many of Disney’s past films. Big Hero 6 features a racially diverse cast, great female characters, and even deals with grieving and mental illness wonderfully.
Disney doesn’t have the greatest track record when it comes to the representation of racial minorities, even in recent years. Of the 13 official Disney princesses, only four are women of color. Additionally, these are the characters most often excluded from merchandise. Princess and the Frog features the first black princess, but she spends most of the movie as a frog, negating some of that progress. Frozen featured one character of color, only visible during a blink-and you miss it in a moment. Big Hero 6 takes a different approach, featuring perhaps the most racially diverse cast to ever be in a Disney film. The film’s lead, Hiro, as well as his brother Tadashi, are biracial (Asian and white), living with their Caucasian aunt. This is the first time that Disney has ever featured explicitly biracial characters in one of their animated films. The characters who make up the rest of the “big hero 6” come from diverse backgrounds, including black, white, Hispanic, and Asian descent.
In addition to having such a racially diverse cast of characters, the cast behind the scenes is just as impressive. In the past, even when multi-racial characters are included in films, people of color don’t typically voice them. For example, in Aladdin, white actors, despite the characters being of Middle Eastern descent, voice both Aladdin and Jasmine. Big Hero 6 doesn’t follow that tradition; people of color voice five of the seven main characters. People of color are portrayed by people of color; an impressive feat not only for an animated film, but for any film in general.
The representation of women in Disney films hasn’t always been impressive either. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ll come to the defense of the princesses faster than most, but I can still acknowledge Disney has problems in this area. The company’s newest film, however, features some fantastic leading ladies that – get this – never have any kind of romantic plot line at any point. The movie also passes the Bechdel Test with ease. Gogo Tomago and Honey Lemon, the two female leads, never once talk about men or romance; they have more important things to discuss, such as how to save the city of San Fransokyo. Additionally, these characters are not sexualized at all, which is so extremely refreshing.
As if the representation isn’t progress enough, this film gives us two female scientists. In my eyes, this is huge. So far, Disney’s most successful female characters have been princesses and we all know how many little girls aspire to be this kind of woman. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially as Disney princesses are slowly but surely becoming stronger female characters. Now imagine if you will, young girls watching Big Hero 6 and falling in love with Gogo and Honey, wanting to be like them. What if it inspires more girls to go into a field known to be a male-dominant one? Maybe I’m being optimistic, but I love the thought that perhaps Disney can inspire girls in a way that I don’t think most people would have ever expected.
Finally, Big Hero 6 tackles an issue that I never anticipated: mental health and grieving. Towards the beginning of the film, Hiro’s older brother Tadashi is killed in a fire. The brothers were close and the ordeal is understandably hard for Hiro. Enter Baymax, Tadashi’s final robotic project. Baymax is a “health care companion” and when he first interacts with Hiro, he starts trying to diagnose and help Hiro. Even though the young man is suffering from depression, Baymax initially tries to treat a physical ailment. Hiro eventually tells Baymax that this isn’t that kind of sickness. Baymax could have dismissed Hiro’s suffering because there was nothing physical about his health problems. However, Baymax finds out what he can about grieving and ways to support someone in Hiro’s position. He provides a shocking amount of comfort for a robot; as well as helps Hiro reconnect with his friends and family whom he lost touch with while grieving.
The way that this movie deals with grief and depression is so fantastic because all too often, we see these invisible illnesses pushed aside because there are no physical symptoms. Here we see a character who takes into account the fact that Hiro was not alright and still needed support, even though it can’t necessarily be seen.
Once again, this kind of representation in a children’s film can have extremely positive implications. As it stands, there’s such a stigma surrounding depression and other mental illnesses; if this stigma continues, the young children of today might be deterred from looking for help if they should ever have a mental illness in the future. However, if they’re exposed to characters who don’t perpetuate this stigmatization, perhaps they’ll feel more comfortable looking for helping if they ever find themselves struggling with mental illness someday. Once again, perhaps this is being ridiculously optimistic, but Disney has such an enormous impact on our culture, anything is possible.
Are there certain things Disney could have handled better? Of course. While their female characters were among some of Disney’s strongest ladies, they could have been even more involved in the story. The movie is essentially, as one critic wrote, the Hiro and Baymax Show. There could have been more development of some of the other characters and while it’s great to see a biracial person take the lead, it diminishes the inclusion of women and other people of color to an extent. Also, because I’m not a person of color, it might only seem to me that they’re handling race well. Overall though, Big Hero 6 performs pretty solidly against some of the other movies that Disney has produced.
My recommendation? Go see this film if you can. Disney needs to know that a movie with strong female characters and such a racially diverse cast can be just as successful and well loved as past films that follow their old and outdated formulas of representation. Plus, it’s a pretty great movie