Ah, Big Hero 6. We wrote about the trailer a while ago, but never came back to review the movie. But, as I’m sure you already know, there’s no need: this movie’s awesomeness is clear to anyone who’s seen it. Big Hero 6 is about a young robotics prodigy, Hiro Hamada, who only wants to use his smarts to design robots for illegal robot fights. His older brother Tadashi, however, manages to steer Hiro toward using his talents for good by introducing him to his university, the San Fransokyo Institue of Technology (SFIT). Hiro meets all Tadashi’s friends and Tadashi’s robot creation, Baymax, a robot that’s designed to diagnose and cure the sick, and after seeing everything, he’s inspired to apply to SFIT himself.
As a protagonist, Hiro’s young enough that the audience can quickly tell Big Hero 6 will be a bildungsroman of some sort—how will Hiro grow up and come into his own? But in telling Hiro’s story, Big Hero 6 also managed to send a compelling message about grief and mourning. Spoilers for the whole movie after the jump.
The source of Hiro’s grief, of course, is evident from the start of the movie. Though Hiro’s parents are dead, he clearly lost them young enough that the memory of them isn’t as present in his life. Rather, he’s pretty much been raised by his brother Tadashi, whom he idolizes. Tadashi inspires Hiro to make something for SFIT’s annual student showcase, saying that if he impresses Robert Callaghan, a famous robotics professor, he’ll be guaranteed entry. Hiro ends up making microbots: tiny little black robots controlled by a neurotransmitter. When linked together, the microbots can do whatever one can imagine: construction, transportation, anything. Callaghan offers Hiro admittance to the university on the spot. Right after this, there’s an unexpected explosion at the showcase, and Tadashi is killed. The change in Hiro is startling. In the space of a scene, he goes from a rambunctious fourteen-year-old to a boy who barely speaks or eats. His Aunt Cass, with whom he lives, tries to cajole him into signing up for university classes and eating some food, but he refuses to do anything.
This lasts until Baymax enters the scene. Hiro accidentally activates his brother’s robot, and Baymax quickly diagnoses Hiro with mood swings related to puberty. To get the robot off his back, Hiro gives Baymax his one remaining microbot. This microbot is trying to fly off to link up with the other microbots, but Hiro thinks all his microbots were destroyed in the explosion, so he lets Baymax figure out where it’s trying to go, figuring it won’t come to anything. Then he realizes he can’t exactly let a robot wander around San Fransokyo by itself, so he chases after Baymax, and together they stumble upon our main plotline.
The important takeaway here is that until Baymax was activated, Hiro was only wallowing in his grief, not making any steps to escape it. Baymax forces him to go outside, and later, as his personal healthcare companion, Baymax takes the steps to help Hiro with his grief. It downloads a database on personal loss, gives Hiro comforting hugs, and contacts all of Tadashi’s friends to come and hang out with Hiro. In short, it pushes Hiro into the healing process. When Hiro gets stuck on avenging his brother, he creates a red chip (with an actual skull on it—he is fourteen, after all) for Baymax so that Baymax will change from a robotic nurse into a fighting robot. Baymax, again, is able to change the trajectory of Hiro’s actions—it shows Hiro video recordings of how Tadashi had built Baymax and essentially reminds him that Tadashi had wanted to help people, not hurt them. Hiro comes to realize that the words he’d so disdained at the beginning of the movie—that Tadashi would never truly be gone as long as he didn’t forget him—are true. Together with his friends, he’s able to live up to Tadashi’s memory and stop the villain without hurting anyone.
All this by itself is a great representation of how to positively deal with grief and the emotions involved therein, but to top it all off, Big Hero 6 also gave us an excellent example of how not to deal with grief: Robert Callaghan. Before the movie began, Callaghan, our villain, lost his daughter Abigail in a tragic Krei Tech Industries accident. Callaghan could never bring himself to forgive Alistair Krei, the CEO, for his part in Abigail’s death, and dedicated himself to bringing Krei down—no matter what the costs might be. So he stole Hiro’s microbots, inadvertently causing Tadashi’s death in the process, and set out to publicly humiliate Krei. He’s in the exact same position as Hiro—both their loved ones were killed, and both of them have a target upon which to wreak revenge.
However, unlike Hiro, instead of working through his anger and getting rid of it, Callaghan allowed his anger to consume him. He didn’t reach out to anyone and he didn’t receive any medical help. He never got rid of his red chip, as it were. At the end of the movie, Callaghan, thanks to Hiro, actually gets his daughter back. But this doesn’t mean he’s won. Abigail never even sees her father—he’s arrested, and she’s stretchered out to an ambulance. Callaghan gets a second chance to be with his daughter, but he squanders that chance through his actions. (Abigail is basically a prop for her father’s pain, but we’ll leave that for another post.)
By the end of the movie, we can see how well Baymax’s treatment has worked on Hiro. Although the movie’s message would have been clearer had Baymax not come back at the end of it—I know, unpopular opinion alert—the story still manages to show us that even without Baymax to help him, Hiro’s able to handle his emotions well. Big Hero 6 completes his character arc in style: Hiro believes he’s lost Baymax forever after the movie’s climax, but this time, his grief isn’t an all-consuming, debilitating force. We see him at the cafe, hanging out with his friends, hugging and talking to his aunt, and unpacking in a lab at the university while wearing an SFIT hoodie. He’s clearly made strides forward, even before he manages to rebuild Baymax.
Big Hero 6 is an amazingly fun movie about family, but its nuanced treatment of grief, especially in adolescents, puts it above and beyond many similar children’s movies. Go see it if you haven’t already.