‘Big Hero 6’ Delights and Challenges

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

Only a few true nerds, such as myself, will be at all challenged with Big Hero 6. Let me explain.

Big Hero 6 is about four students at San Fransokyo Institute of Technology (SFIT), the younger brother of a fifth, and a robot. These are the “6” in Big Hero 6. The catch here is that these “super heroes” don’t have mystical powers. Their performance boosts come from technologies that they create.

The lead character is Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) who is a wild genius youth who enjoys bot fights instead of the serious business of school. His older brother, Tadashi, tries to dissuade him from wasting all of his talent on underground bot fighting and finally breaks through. He gets Hiro hooked on being a student at SFIT. There’s a catch. SFIT is a robotics-oriented school, and you must show your ability to get in. Hiro must demonstrate his capability to the faculty of the school by showing actual robotics.

How he does so and what happens next set the course for the film. There’s just enough scariness and just sufficient levity associated with it to please school-age children. I’ll be taking my grandsons (aged five and seven) to see this movie two days after it opens and will share their reactions with you then.

The robot member of the six is the most unlikely hero you’ll ever meet. Baymax is voiced perfectly by Scott Adsit. He is a healthcare robot, a nurse, who looks like, as the script puts it, a marshmallow. He is white and squishy — inflated actually. He has a large pot belly and walks like a penguin. This robot is the legacy of Tadashi, his ultimate creation.

Besides Hiro and Baymax, the six include Go Go Tomago (Jamie Chung) who is a speed freak, Wasabi (Damon Wayons Jr.) who has terminal OCD and looks like he spends too much time in the gym, Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez) who seems out of place in a robotics school because her expertise is in chemistry, and Fred (T. J. Miller) who just likes to hang out with the smart kids at SFIT. 

I’m sure that you’ll find plenty of reviews that cover the emotional details of this movie. It cruises neatly from happy to sad, from scary to funny, from warm to exciting. Disney says that it’s their first animated action movie. When asked, the directors explained that BH6 has six action sequences in it whereas their previous movies only had two or three. Given the complexity of the action sequences (I had trouble following all of the action in every one), it’s no wonder that this has not previously been attempted.

The story, the static sequences, the action sequences, and the moving sequences are all very well done. The Hyperion renderer really makes the scenes come alive. Take a close look at Hiro’s room early in the movie. I haven’t see this sort of lighting since the earliest days of Disney features when Pinocchio was made in the waning days of the Great Depression, and the studios could afford to lavish art on the screen because labor was cheap. The scene where Clio the goldfish swims around in her bowl is a delight in artistry. The lighting was created by artists’ imaginations in that film. Today, computers light our animated sets. Until Hyperion, they couldn’t do enough calculations to make the lighting truly realistic.

Of course, the heroes catch the bad guy in the end after a number of harrowing escapes. Things turn out better than you would have expected due to some clever story twists.

The BH6 heroes do quite a bit of engineering that you don’t see. One sequence that I liked involved Tadashi doing some real engineering. He had an idea and built a model. His first try didn’t work. You get a sense of the lengthy and often complex process of making something that works starting with just an idea and a set of skills. Other engineering work may be hinted at but is not so fully shown, but it’s a 90-minute movie, after all.

As you can tell from the above, this is a delightful movie that even adults can enjoy. So, where’s the challenge?

The producer and directors (Roy Conli, Don Hall, and Chris Williams) set out to make BH6 scientifically plausible, even accurate with the assumption of future technology developments. As the movie starts, the science and technology are well within the realm of feasibility if you make a few assumptions about power density and such. As it moves along, small logical holes appear. Late in the movie, some really large leaps of faith are required. Things are moving along so fast by then that you may not notice until you think them over later.

The problem with animation is that you can do anything. If you’d like to lift trucks with one finger, you can animate that. Run faster than light speed? They can draw that. Fortunately, BH6 does not go that far.

Rather than enumerate the science errors that I found, I’d like you to comment on the ones you find. This is just for fun. There’s no prize for the best list. We can argue over whether this or that error really is an error or just represents future technology. Imagination is fun. Let’s enjoy this exercise in what’s real. The online trailers provide several opportunities, and the entire movie many more.

I’ll start the process by mentioning just a few of the science or technology problems I saw early on in the movie.

1. The microbots are very small. They do some remarkable things. Where do they get their power? They are too small to hold enough power to do all of the things they do. Furthermore, we never see them recharge.

2. A microbot can sense the other microbots and tries to unite with them. I might go along if the distance is across a room, but across a city? What is the sensing mechanism that allows one microbot to know where the others are even across long distances?

3. There are some rather dramatic flying sequences in the film. In a couple of places, the turns would create so much g force as to cause a human to black out.

If you’re a science teacher, you can show the trailers and elicit your students’ responses. This will be a great exercise in both science and critical thinking. Have fun. The movie is fun, and analyzing the science in it afterward will extend the fun much longer. I look forward to ideas that I didn’t have and to our dialog.

One more thing. BH6 is preceded by a six-minute short, “Feast,” produced by Kristine Reed. While drawn in the usual cartoon 2D fashion, its scenes were rendered by the Hyperion 3D lighting software. The result is a sort of 2.5D animation. Look at the lighting in the various scenes and see if you can tell the difference. In addition, the focus of the scenes changes at one point in the short and signals a plot shift. Watch for it.

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2 Responses

  1. Hey! How about that nifty head band that allowed you to control things with thoughts? Is that really possible?

    In brief, it’s possible in theory but extraordinarily difficult in practice. It will be decades before anyone can do more than trivial manipulation with thought, and that trivial manipulation is already being done today.

    The problem resides in the nature of thought. Imagining a structure and having an image created of that imagination is already a huge leap. Knowing how to take 20 million microbots and put them together to look like that image or, more astonishingly, to build it is just unrealistic anywhere in the foreseeable future.

    Big Hero 6 is lots of fun. It’s just not anywhere near real in quite a few ways. You just might have fun making lists of unreal stuff in the movie and comparing your list with those of your friends. Who has the longest list? How many of your friends’ entries can you shoot down? Give one point to every list item still standing. Add two points for every shoot-down that you make. Subtract one point for every item on your list that was shot down. This can make a nice game. Enjoy!

  2. I took my two grandchildren to see BH6 ten days ago. The five-year old tends to be antsy in movies, but he was rapt for the entire length of the movie. BH6 wins points for engagement.

    After the movie, I asked them about the characters. Both the five- and seven-year old were entirely focused on Baymax.

    Once the DVD is out, and they can watch it more, they may become interested in the other characters. Because of all of the action and because of the prominence of Baymax in all of the action sequences, it’s easy to see how children will be entranced by the large, white, rubbery robot.

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