The Genius of Compassion: Big Hero Six

The Genius of Compassion: Big Hero Six March 5, 2015

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Disney’s Big Hero Six takes the responsibility of speaking to children seriously, proposing that the nature of being a hero is not in the greatness of one’s power but in the greatness of one’s commitment to love. The story weaves the interconnected themes of intelligence on the one hand and heartfelt compassion on the other and show how they are not in opposition but rather reinforce one another.

The young protagonist, Hiro, goes through a journey of connecting head and heart. He begins his story using his cleverness for personal gain, failing to consider how his actions will affect others. At first, we might think the film is teaching a point about lateral thinking: see things from other perspectives. It is this approach that lets Hiro begin to overcome intellectual obstacles.

However, seeing things from a different perspective is vital in the emotional life of Hiro as well. He begins to walk a dark path, seeking revenge against a masked villain. A less nuanced story would simply portray the boy-hero using his brains to beat the bad-guy, but Big Hero Six doesn’t take the easy way out. The desire for revenge leads Hiro to cut off others’ perspectives, to isolate himself. Until he is confronted with his need for other people and for love.

At the film’s denouement, the villain is unmasked, a human being also torn by grief at loss and seeking revenge. The theme of lateral thinking takes on a new dimension (and the protagonists literally travel to a new dimension). Not only do we use our intelligence to solve mechanical problems from different perspectives, we are moved to compassion when we view our enemies as human and see things from their perspective.

Hiro does not, of course, condone his enemy’s villainous ways but he comes to understand that they come from a place of suffering. As Hiro and his friends work doubly hard to arrest the villain, they are more effective when they are motivated by compassion and not by hatred. The head allows the heart to act and the heart exceeds the logic of the head and opens up a new perspective.

Most people’s favourite character in Big Hero Six is not the protagonist, however. It is the lovable, inflatable robot Baymax. Baymax is a non-violent medical assistant and in the context of the film he functions as Hiro’s conscience. Baymax has a childlike innocence and purity of intentions. The robot’s only desire is to heal and help people. In a way, Baymax plays the Watson to Hiro’s Sherlock, calling him back from the abstract realm to the realm of human feeling. The irony of a robot performing this role is often delightful.

The setting is also important to the film’s themes. The lush backdrop of the fictional city of Sanfransokyo clues the audience to the fact that the film will integrate western and eastern storytelling. Fans of Asian cinema will be treated to references to their favourite movies. At the same time, Big Hero Six makes homage to the western canon of superheroes who have come before, highlighting their legacy of pursuing the moral good even at great personal cost.

It is indeed a big responsibility to provide material for a child’s imagination. However, it is the audacity and hopefullness of childhood that allows us to truly believe there is a good and that we can grow closer to it if we work hard. I am consoled that children, through this genuinely fun adventure, can learn that the head and the heart are both pathways to compassion. We have great powers of compassion and intelligence as human beings and these powers, used rightly, can make us heroic forces for good.

Aristotle points out that drama has the power to sway us. It can move our emotions – making us empathize with some characters or making us revile certain tragic errors. Big Hero Six uses drama to help us desire to be good: to think of things from different perspectives and to look again to see things from the other’s point of view. The fact that the film was so popular and well-loved shows that humans desire goodness. Let us pray that more storytellers will learn to appeal to their audience’s better natures.

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