With its latest release, Disney is daring to go where almost no other big budget animated movie has gone before: Big Hero 6, which opens in theaters on Nov. 7, puts diversity on the front lines, not only breaking, but destroying racial and gender stereotypes in the process. Should the masses head to see it, the pay-off will be enormous. But the biggest potential boon here isn't financial; it's the moral victory.
Big Hero 6, inspired by Marvel Comics' superhero team of the same name, directors Chris Williams and Don Hall aim to eradicate commonplace portrayals in a fictional Utopia: the futuristic town of San Fransokyo, a mash-up of Tokyo and San Francisco. "This [film] gave us a perfect opportunity to create a diverse cast," Hall told BuzzFeed News. "When you look outside your window, you go to any city anywhere in America — the world for that matter — and it's a diverse world. Our films should reflect that. So very early on, we decided that we were going to have a lot of diversity in this film, and the main characters were going to be a mash-up as well, because this is a mash-up of Disney and Marvel. It's a mash-up of Eastern and Western culture."
It's also a world where the brightest kids in the school are people of color and the team mascot is the white student. At the center of Big Hero Six is smartypants Hiro Hamada, a biracial (Japanese and white) student who would rather hoodwink goons in seedy after-hours joints and take part in gambling illegally in a robot-fighting racquet than go to school and learn.
"One of the things that I am proud of is the fact that we do have this very diverse cast. In one sense, we don't make a big deal out of it. The characters are certainly not defined in any way by their race and I'm very proud of that," Williams told BuzzFeed News. "Ryan Potter, who voices Hiro, at one point, he said to us that what he loves about the film is that everybody's gonna see themselves up there. I'm really proud of that."
Big Hero 6 is filled with subtle, teachable moments. In Wasabi, voiced by Damon Wayans Jr., viewers get a strong, physical presence in a large brown body with cropped dreadlocks — the type of guy we might typically see on screen guarding a nightclub door or working as a scary-but-silent henchman for a movie villain. Instead, Wasabi is a by-the-book guy, who also happens to be extraordinarily brilliant when it comes to robotic engineering.
"My character, when you look at him, he looks like a big, burly guy who would take care of things and take charge, but really, when he opens his mouth, he's a neatnik kind of guy who needs a plan in order to take action," Wayans Jr. told BuzzFeed News. "And he doesn't like to get hurt. And he likes rules! He's neurotic and OCD."
Big Hero 6 also aims to breakdown gender stereotypes with bold and brainy girls taking center stage in the form of Go Go Tomago (Jamie Chung) and Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez), both of whom are women of color. As much as they didn't want their characters' races to be limiting, Hall and Williams didn't want them to be defined by gender either.
"I love that they represented Go Go as one of the stronger characters," Chung told BuzzFeed News. "And I love that the cast is multicultural. Growing up in San Francisco, I'm quite used to the diversity and very grateful for it, and glad that [the filmmakers] represented this city in its entirety."
But in some respects, diversity plays second fiddle to Big Hero 6's emotional storyline itself, one that Disney has mastered. Orphaned before the film actually begins, Hiro's older brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) and his Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph) are his only family. He experiences unthinkable loss at a young age, and finds comfort in the form of Baymax, a health care robot prototype that his equally intelligent older brother Tadashi created.
"The Lion King, Bambi, Dumbo: The thing that we pride ourselves on is that we're emotion first. You have to be emotionally engaged with the character, so… we knew that the emotional spine of the movie was going to be the story of Hiro and Baymax," Hall said. "It was going to tackle the subject of loss, and tackle it head on, and that was going to be the main thematic idea. ... When I hear people sniffling or tearing up or you hear that little gasp that says people are really emotionally invested in the film, that is the most gratifying thing."
But even through tears, it's difficult to ignore the cultural richness in Big Hero 6. Though it doesn't feel forced, it does feel like a moment, a chance to tell a story with characters who look like what the world looks like.
"Diversity was never a marketing decision or a cash grab or any kind of a 'This will guarantee success,'" Williams said. "It was really a reflection of the world and where we are now. It's not a story set in the historic past. It is very present and now and it's futuristic, actually, and it should reflect the now."