Since its inception, Disney has always possessed an element of magic. From the moment Mickey Mouse started whistling at the beginning of the short film 'Steamboat Willie,' audiences knew that they were witnessing something new, whimsical, and magical.
Walt Disney was aware this and he built his empire upon that concept. Mickey embodied this mysticism as the magician's apprentice in Fantasia and the enchanted tradition has since continued into Disney's modern animation. Consider Cinderella's fairy godmother, Tinkerbell's pixie dust, Aladdin's Genie, or Elsa's control over snow and ice. Even off screen, Disney exists in a world where Merlin's wizardry and alchemy is as real the sword Wart pulled from the stone. They even named their Florida theme park Magic Kingdom.
From their stories, to their amusement parks, to their toys and assorted merchandise, Disney boldly declares their faith in magic and insists that you share their belief.
This last weekend, I finally made the effort to see Big Hero 6 – the most recent addition to the cannon of Walt Disney Animation Studios and their first film featuring Marvel Comics source material. The movie is absolutely delightful and deserves the Oscar award it won for best animated feature. Naturally, the nerd in me is excited to see superheroes in the Disney universe. Yet, as I contemplate why Big Hero 6 is such a phenomenal movie, it has little to do with Marvel's intellectual property; it came to life through Disney's tradition of movie magic. Comparing this movie to the rest of Disney's filmography, there are three big avenues through which this magic manifests.
1. The magic of inclusion.
Disney doesn't want to tell you a story, they want to involve you in the stories they tell. They build fantasy worlds in such a way to make you feel as if you are present - or at least wish you were there. Their films have been set on every continent (except Antarctica) and places beyond: underwater (Atlantis), outer space (Treasure Planet), and virtual reality (Wreck-It Ralph). Their characters span such a wide variety of personalities that any viewer should be able to find someone to whom they relate - even if that character is the nervous and panic prone bird (Zazu), the playful but difficult to love alien (Stitch), or a hippy sentient VW Van (Fillmore). Even in the earliest classics, Disney sought to appeal to the widest spectrum possible. In seven dwarfs with distinct and nameable personas, there is someone for anyone to say, "Yeah, that's me."
This art of inclusion is why people are drawn to Disneyland – the happiest place on earth. It has spawned countless works of fan art and creative mashups. Obsessive studies of Disney movies have revealed the psychoses of some of our most popular heroes, heroines, and villains – even assigning them diagnoses from the DSM-IV. If ever you doubt that there is a Disney character like you, there is a handy chart that delegates each personality type from the Meyers-Briggs test to corresponding Disney figures.*
In Big Hero 6, the magic of inclusion is alive and well. Set in the fictional city San Fransokyo (an amalgamation of San Francisco and Tokyo), animators managed to incorporate the best of both cities and create an alluring environment that was not only believable, but the kind of place where I would want to live. The screenwriters developed characters that we care about, to celebrate in their victories and mourn in their grief. And still there were personalities varied enough to relate to different members of the audience. Christian, my oldest, found his doppelganger in Hiro - the 14 year old genius who serves as the central protagonist. Zu had two kindred spirits in the girls: GoGo the athletic engineer and Honey Lemon the quirky and empathetic chemist. JJ's favorite was Wasabi, the cautious neat-freak who specialized in laser and plasma technology. Even I could see a bit of myself in Hiro's older brother Tadashi who wanted nothing more than the best for his family and friends and ultimately sacrificed himself to save someone he admired.
2. The magic of imagination.
The power of the imagination is deeply rooted in Disney's philosophy. Even the employees responsible for designing, creating, and building the theme park attractions, cruise ship features, retail locations, and resorts are not engineering these destinations - they're Imagineering. Walt Disney believed that Disneyland would continue to grow as long as there was someone out there with an imagination and he was quoted saying, "Laughter is timeless. Imagination has no age. And dreams are forever." When a company's founder possesses such boundless and imaginative optimism, that attitude will be absorbed by the whole organization. That unbridled creativity spread like a wildfire from Disney's first cartoons, turning every story he touched into magic, reimagining familiar tales into something grander than anyone could have anticipated.
With the magic of imagination, every girl has slipped into a princess dress for at least a moment to pretend they are Bell or Snow White or Merida or Jasmine. With the magic of imagination, thousands of people from around the world are adding a Disney destination to their bucket lists while thousands others are checking it off from theirs. With the magic of imagination, we are invited into a wonderful world of make-believe. Through the magic of imagination we discover truths about the human condition from talking animals giving lessons in morality and catchy songs that permanently implant themselves in your psyche (I'm talking about you, 'Let It Go').
The plot of Big Hero 6 hinges on the magic of imagination. It follows the complex mind of Hiro as he grows from inventing his own battle robot to building powerful suits that grant his friends superpowers. Even the MacGuffin in Big Hero 6 are millions of microbots that are controlled by the imagination. But rather than tell us that Hiro is just a smart kid, the movie takes us to the drawing table with him. We watch as he drafts out his designs and uses a 3D printer to construct his prototypes. We're included in the testing processes. In a sense, the movie is teaching us how to use our own imagination, cementing one of the biggest lessons of the story: to solve your problems by observing them from a different angle.
3. The magic of inspiration.
In a world where most magicians employ misdirection and sleight of hand, the only real magic that truly remains is the power of a story to shape our culture. Stories that change hearts and move mountains. Stories that inspire us to do great acts and soar to great heights. Disney has harnessed that magic of inspiration and embraced their potential to cause great good in our world.
How many people adopted a dog after watching 101 Dalmatians? How many kids tried to dissemble their gadgets and tinker with the parts after watching The Great Mouse Detective? How many siblings strengthened their bond after watching Brother Bear? How many humans started recycling more after watching WALL-E?
The magic of inspiration shines in Big Hero 6. It was inspiration for my daughter to see that girls are just as smart and inventive as boys. It was inspiration for my oldest son to use his creativity to positively affect the world around him. And JJ? Well, he has always wanted to be a real life hero. Ever since he was old enough to have career aspirations, he has wanted to be a police officer or a fireman. As we walked out of the theater, he told me that he changed his mind; now he wants to build robots to help people. Big Hero 6 opened the possibilities for him. He will probably change his mind at least a dozen times between now and when he goes to college about the kind of work he wants to do, but now he sees that there are endless ways to be a hero. Being a robotics engineer is one of those ways.
* In case you’re wondering, I’m either The Overseer (Woody) or The Inspector (Sebastian), depending on circumstance.