In Big Hero 6 (Hall & Williams 2014) we are introduced to San Fransokyo: a futuristic, dual culture city where American and east Asian cultures have morphed together. It’s a vibrant, action packed place for our aptly-named protagonist Hiro (Ryan Potter) to live as a child prodigy, spending his genius hustling the local “bot-battle” champions with his disarming youthfulness and ingenious robots. His older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) goes to the city’s technical school and is building a “health-care assistant” robot called Baymax (Scott Adsit). Tadashi frowns upon Hiro's bot-battling and encourages his younger brother to use his mind for something bigger. When Tadashi takes Hiro to visit his school and see the imaginative and fascinating work that he and his classmates do, Hiro realizes that going to the “nerd-school” and applying his mind to something productive might actually be a lot of fun. Tadashi convinces his younger brother to enter into a robotics competition, sponsored by the school. Hiro invents “microbots”— centimeter long creations, that are controlled by a transmitter that reads the brainwaves of the human operator. He wins the competition, but as they are leaving to go home, the building catches on fire. Tadashi runs back inside to save his professor, and an explosion kills them.
Throughout, the movie explores some classic science fiction questions about robot/human cohabitation. The most obvious is the idea of robotic companionship. Can humans connect with/be in relationship with artificial intelligence as they can with humans? After Tadashi dies, Hiro is extremely distraught, and Baymax begins attending to his needs--particularly his emotional healing. Baymax is a character who, because of his programming, is totally devoted to Hiro’s needs and is completely transparent about everything (“I can not do X, I am a robot!”). Baymax is fully aware of his purpose and of his being a robot, which gives him a childlike naïveté and innocence, leading to many entertaining sequences and some unexpectedly touching interactions between this big fluffy “marshmallow” robot and a suffering human child. Throughout the story they grow closer. Baymax is unswervingly loyal and cheerfully self-sacrificing, and though Hiro initially uses him (and his loyalty, which by the biblical definition could be called “love”) to pursue his ends, by the end their relationship becomes much more mutual so that we could arguably call them “friends.” Of course, you could argue that this isn’t really love or friendship because Baymax isn’t initially programmed to do anything else (although you could also argue that he’s programmed to be a healing machine, not a human who has free will, but I digress).
Related to robot/human companionship is the idea that artificial intelligence is a key to becoming immortal. An AI can 'survive' as long as its program exists somewhere in some accessible memory storage. In the movie this is compared/contrasted to human life as other characters try to console Hiro, saying that Tadashi “will be here as long as we remember him.” And going off of another definition of the word “immortal,” the movie also suggests that advanced technology is a path to transcendence. When one of the characters feels powerless to stop the evil villain she says, “what can we do? We’re just nerds. We’re just us,” to which Hiro replies, “No, we can be so much more!” and they go on to create super-suits that give them special abilities. This paints technological pursuit in light of the human condition; it reveals the feeling (and the reality) of inadequacy in humans, and that the search for something greater is driving technological advances and exploration. It is an essentially theological pursuit.
Not all Disney movies can claim the thoughtfulness and craft of Big Hero 6. While some parts of the movie seem a little rushed, overall the world of San Fransokyo is exhilarating and inspiring. The topic of artificial intelligence and its impact on “real life” is an important topic for ours and future generations to think about, and this movie offers a lovely platform to do so.