What 'Big Hero 6' could have learned from 'The Incredibles'
Ten years ago this month, Brad Bird’s animated adventure film The Incredibles debuted—and with its winning, funny story about a married pair of washed-up superheroes trying to raise kids and save the world at the same time, it immediately joined the canon of Disney/Pixar insta-classics.
Almost exactly one decade later, Disney released Big Hero 6, another story about a team of animated heroes. It’s not hard to spot connections between the two: They share similar color schemes and aesthetics, for example, and they both feature a titular group of crime-fighters trying to get (or regain) a grip on their abilities while battling a self-styled supervillain out for revenge.
But there’s plenty that separates the two films, besides a decade of animation advancements—and Big Hero 6 may have done well to lift more from its predecessor.
Jonathon Dornbush: So Big Hero 6 is the first time Disney is putting its Marvel properties to use outside of the live-action series that will one day grow large enough to encompass every movie being released. The film succeeded in a lot of ways—but it also has a few glaring issues, and the comparison invited by the 10th anniversary of The Incredibles certainly doesn’t help. While the two movies have different goals, I think Big Hero 6 could have taken more cues from Pixar’s masterwork. How did they stack up for you, Ashley?
Ashley Fetters: I do think Big Hero 6 could have learned a lot from The Incredibles. But it’s important to qualify that by admitting I think pretty much every movie could have learned a lot from The Incredibles. The Incredibles makes gorgeous use of cool cinematic tricks (those Breaking Bad-esque POV shots!), and narratively, it’s a master class in making the very most of every opportunity—that is, it squeezes clever surprises into both big moments (that climactic battle with Syndrome, who brings about his own demise by wearing the ill-advised, out-of-vogue superhero cape) and small (Bob getting distracted while cutting a steak and accidentally slicing the plate in half). To me, The Incredibles is perfect, and of course all dissenting opinions are wrong.
One thing I especially appreciate about The Incredibles after having seen Big Hero 6, though, is that its titular superheroes feel like a team; one family member uses his or her specialized super-skill to save the day when another’s in trouble, another saves the day in a different jam, and by the end of the film, all four Incredibles (five, if you count Jack-Jack!) have come to the rescue at least once. Meanwhile, it’s easy to get the sense that Hiro’s friends in Big Hero 6 might make a pretty lousy superhero team without his help. It’s Hiro, after all, who outfits Baymax, Honey Lemon, Fred, Wasabi, and Gogo with their gadgets and gear, and the climax of Big Hero 6 finds Hiro saying the magical words of encouragement to help the rest of the team strategize their way out of Professor Callaghan’s clutches. It’s a Beyonce/Destiny’s Child, Justin Timberlake/’NSync sort of thing—whereas the Incredibles are more like a Million Dollar Quartet.
Jonathon: Big Hero 6 is undoubtedly the Hiro and Baymax Show through and through. The only other member of the titular six who gets any sizable characterization is Fred, and I honestly think nothing would change in the film if Honey Lemon, Go Go, and Wasabi had sat this one out. Sure, their skills come in handy during the fight scenes, but they’re given almost nothing else to do. Which is a shame, because the voice actors behind them are actors I enjoy. (Give me Damon Wayans Jr. screaming and I will always laugh.) I wanted a little more from the team since they’re supposed to be just that—a team.
Ashley: I actually found it somewhat jolting when the two main characters and four supporting cast were introduced at the end as the “Big Hero 6.” The marketing hasn’t been all that transparent about the fact that “Big Hero 6” actually refers to a team of heroes, as “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Avengers” or “Justice League” do. And the film focuses enough on Baymax and Hiro that I’m sure that has surprised some viewers—i.e., “Oh, they’ll all be back for the (probable) sequel? Not just Hiro and Baymax?”
Which, of course, raises the question of why a “team” superhero movie is preferable. My gut feeling is that world-saving as a collaborative effort is, as a rule, more fun to watch than world-saving as a lone-wolf or hero-and-sidekick endeavor. Saving the world on your own lends itself to great drama, while saving the world with some buddies (or your siblings and your mom and dad) creates opportunities for, you know, banter and hijinks.
That said: Even if this vision of the Big Hero 6 is really more of a Big Hero 2 and Friends, the main pair deliver when it counts. Baymax, in particular, is a lock for my Disney/Pixar All-Star team.
Jonathon: Oh, definitely. If a “save the world” mission is lacking in banter and hijinks, then I’m out. I love my Iron Men and Captains America, but characters reconciling their plight with one another is generally fascinating.
Baymax is an absolute win for Disney on both a comedic and a monetary level. (I still can’t get over the fact that he’s voiced by 30 Rock‘s Pete Hornberger.) Even I went home and immediately jumped on Amazon to check out how much a Baymax figure would cost me. (There’s one sitting on my desk right now.) He’s even more prevalent in the film than I expected him to be, but the film manages to never overuse him or his running jokes. That said, my enthusiasm for Baymax and Hiro over everyone else demonstrates the film’s lack of a real team dynamic—unlike, say, Guardians of the Galaxy.
Speaking of other Marvel films, Big Hero 6 falls into some of the same traps they do—namely, as Film Journal‘s review smartly points out, a lack of narrative polish. The pacing was jarring and the villain underserved, issues that have plagued even my favorite Marvel movies.
But I enjoyed the throughline of Hiro’s story. While it seems like every Disney movie deals with death, it’s rarely on a brotherly level, and the way Hiro handles the loss of his brother and mentor is executed surprisingly well. Or, perhaps, not that surprising—consider the directors involved.
Ashley: Totally. It’s well documented that the great Disney and Pixar animated features are the ones that don’t shy away from real, human, grown-up anxieties like abandonment (Toy Story), loss (Up), and familial distress (Finding Nemo). Big Hero 6 adequately keeps with this tradition, though it handles its most gut-wrenching scenes with less nuance than other films in its lineage do. As Genevieve Koski points out at The Dissolve, Big Hero 6 “telegraphs [its main] tragedy much too loudly,” and it’s easy to imagine that a more “mature audiences” version of the film might not.
But while Big Hero 6 may not pack the emotional wallop of, say, Monsters Inc. or Up, some of its loveliest moments are the ones that deal with Hiro’s eventual acceptance of his brother’s death. (In other words, let’s be thankful it doesn’t have the Monsters University problem.) However: It is what puts Big Hero 6 truly on the opposite end of the spectrum from The Incredibles. Big Hero 6 surprised me by filtering some its most affecting moments through a protective parental lens. Conversely, when I watched The Incredibles again recently, I was surprised to discover that it’s really not a children’s film at all.
Yes, like all great Pixar adventures, The Incredibles is a wild, entertaining ride with a surprisingly grave problem propelling the action. But much of its narrative urgency comes from the looming threat that Bob and Helen Parr’s marriage might dissolve—and as the result of a midlife crisis and/or a perceived affair, to boot. These are some pretty grown-up problems—ones that kids can’t really relate to.
Of course, there’s enough all-ages fun in The Incredibles—and the gestures toward Bob and Helen’s sex life are just subtle enough—that it remains squarely in the category of “family entertainment.” But there’s an important distinction to be made here. Big Hero 6 is a great kids’ movie; as Vanity Fair wisely described it, it’s an adorable, if less emotionally sophisticated, Marvel “starter pack” of sorts for the demographic that’ll be responsible for buying tickets to Avengers: Infinity War Part 2 in 2020. The Incredibles, on the other hand, is a great film that kids can also enjoy.
Jonathon: And there’s certainly nothing wrong with Big Hero 6 wanting to be that starter-pack film. I can’t deny I had an absolute blast watching the film, but at the same time I do think it fails to capitalize on some of its potential. The focus remains too narrow and the emotional threads are too unexplored.
The Incredibles works because it’s a superhero story that’s not really about being a superhero. Big Hero 6 wants to convey the idea that nobody can go through life’s ups and downs alone; everyone needs a family a team. There’s a promising start to that idea in Big Hero 6—but when so much of the team feels expendable, it’s hard to totally buy into the message.