Big Hero 6 is a milestone for Disney and another step on from their Princess problem

Spoiler Warning: This piece will not go into detail about Big Hero 6’s plot, but it does discuss an early development that you may consider a surprise. It’s a story event that has been openly discussed in many reviews, but we understand that some readers will wish to remain entirely in the dark. If so, please bookmark this page and come back once you’ve seen the film.

Big Hero 6 is a familiar tale of a young boy battling through a rather emotional period in his life with the help of an unusual parental figure. In this case, Hiro (Ryan Potter) is being helped to cope with the loss of his brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney), by Baymax, a care-giving robot who looks a little like a walking marshmallow and speaks with calm tones supplied by the comic actor Scott Adsit.

As well as being an adaptation of a little-known Marvel comic book, it’s also the new picture from Walt Disney Animation, home of “the Disney Princess.” That’s a notion which went many years in need of an upgrade, but the studio’s filmmakers have evidently been working very hard in recent pictures to better align their stories and characters with modern gender politics.

Newer films, including Brave, from the Disney-owned Pixar, and the main-brand smash-hit Frozen have been, rightfully, applauded for ways in which they have subverted the ‘Princess’ idea. Frozen in particular did a wonderful job of putting an intelligent, modern twist to familiar tropes.

Big Hero 6 now marks another milestone in the shifting attitudes presented by Disney’s animated features. There are many ideas in this film which represent a real advance over some of mainstream cinema’s typical gender representations, some of them more obvious than others.

Baymax, for instance, is essentially a male nurse. He may not strictly be a man as he is a robot, but the character is marked out as male, not least by the voice performance. We generally only see male nurses in Hollywood features when there’s a cheap joke to be made – think of, for example, Meet the Parents.

Indeed, mainstream Hollywood films do still often divide their characters by gender, and in such a way that a male character who nurtures is, if they’re even admitted at all, relegated to minor importance.

Baymax is very clearly a surrogate paternal figure with a focus on providing care, and on nurturing the emotional wellbeing of Hiro. In one of Big Hero 6’s most emotionally effective scenes, Hiro attempts to get Baymax to hurt someone, but the robot is unable to comply, even if it would mean making Hiro happy.

Instead of the familiar scene of a new paternal surrogate in a kid’s life teaching them how to fight, we’re shown a scene in which the surrogate father figure demonstrates that violence is not something to be resorted to.

This is just one of many ways in which Big Hero 6 takes familiar gender stereotypes and gives them a twist, or even an outright flip. We often see GoGo, a friend of Tadashi’s and a female scientist with smarts and a street-tough persona, taking charge of the situation. Most notably, perhaps, when she takes the wheel during a car chase after the skills of a male counterpart are shown to fall somewhat short of the mark.

During an early interaction between GoGo and Hiro, she implores him to be more confident by telling him to ‘woman up.’ This subversion on the ghastly idiom ‘man up’ is not exactly subtle but it does get a laugh and makes an important point. This lack of subtlety is no bad thing, either, especially when a film is aimed primarily at younger children.

It’s worth mentioning that while Big Hero 6’s character designs may give only narrow waists to its lead female characters, things have been significantly improved from the original Marvel comics. Here’s GoGo as she was, and as she is now.

That’s a real advance, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Another scientist and friend of Tadashi is Honey Lemon, the group’s chemistry expert. She may be drawn rather closer to a stereotypical illustration, with a her superhero outfit in purple and pink, and coming complete with wedges and a handbag of sorts, but she is no less smart or able to take care of herself than GoGo.

Honey Lemon’s handbag isn’t just for decoration or carting about cosmetics, by the way, but features buttons that correspond with the periodic table, and which allow her to program globs of liquid into different useful compounds. And again, Honey Lemon’s look is a welcome departure from the comic.

The strength in having both Honey Lemon and GoGo amongst the main characters of Big Hero 6 is a message that whether or not you’re stereotypically ‘girly,’ you might still be a super cool scientist and a strong superhero. Not only does their gender fail to define who GoGo and Honey Lemon are, but we’re shown that an interest in more traditionally codified female interests has not excluded them from having other interests or strengths.

Tadashi’s other friends, and the two final members of the Big Hero 6 superhero team, are Wasabi (Damon Wayans Jr.), a well-built male scientist who is also obsessive compulsive and highly neurotic; and the school’s mascot Fred (T.J. Miller). So, out of the three scientists – Fred isn’t really a scientist, just an enthusiast – that join up with Hiro, two-thirds of them are female, and females who frequently take charge, move the plot forward and show intelligence and resilience, just as the male characters do.

There’s a real sense of gender parity in the film’s design, with characters’ strengths and weaknesses not being determined by their gender. Nor, in fact, are any of them defined by their race or ethnic background.

There are more positive female representations to be found amongst the supporting cast. Tadashi and Hiro’s primary guardian is their Aunt Cass, a single woman with her own business – something that may well have been hammered home by many other films, but is here treated casually. Even the supporting role of a test pilot, who becomes more important as the film’s plot develops, is a female. She’s definitely a minor character, but also one that we see doing something very brave.

And best of all, very little of this will seem at all unusual or signposted when you’re watching Big Hero 6. The point is that these things really shouldn’t be a point, and so the racial diversity and gender equality is never made an issue or broadcast from a soapbox, but is all just treated, totally appropriately, as normal.

Big Hero 6 is already screening in the US and will be released in the UK on the 30th of January.