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‘Disney Deaths’ and ‘Big Hero 6’: How Children’s Stories Process Loss

'Disney Deaths' and 'Big Hero 6': How Children's Stories Process Loss

This article discusses the ending of “Big Hero 6

At the Dissolve, Tasha Robinson takes issue with what she terms “the Disney Death,” the much-(ab)used tactic in which a character’s apparent demise is milked for maximum pathos before they’re magically revived. The latest example — and spoiler, but only if you’ve never seen a movie before — is “Big Hero 6,” at whose climax cuddly robot sidekick Baymax is sucked into a vortex with no hope of return. 

As Robinson writes, Disney has gone to this well many, many times before

The more Disney returns to the exact same well, the less the Disney Death can possibly feel organic, no matter how thoroughly it’s worked into the story. The kids who grew up stunned by Bambi’s mother’s no-takebacks-this-time death often speak with a bit of a cynical sneer about the end of “Lady and the Tramp,” where the loyal bloodhound Trusty is seemingly crushed by a horse-drawn wagon while rescuing Tramp, only to appear with no more harm than a cast on his leg in the next scene. “The Jungle Book” has Baloo going down under Shere Khan’s claws, just long enough for a heartbreaking sequence with Mowgli trying to revive his limp body, and for Bagheera to mourn and praise him. (Baloo naturally wakes up in time to tease Bagheera for his uncharacteristic display of emotion.) “Robin Hood” has Robin disappearing into a moat, struggling under a wave of arrows; “The Fox and the Hound” sends the old hound Chief off a cliff and bounces him off a series of rocks. Both characters improbably survive. “Beauty and the Beast” has Beast die under Gaston’s knife before he’s brought back by his curse breaking. Similarly, Gurgi dies and is reborn in “The Black Cauldron,” and so does Megara in Hercules. Basil appears to die in “The Great Mouse Detective,” and so does Esmeralda in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” who didn’t get a resurrection in the original book. Even Goofy in “A Goofy Movie” goes off a cliff to his apparent demise before his salvation is revealed.

I don’t have much interest in defending “Big Hero 6,” a third-rate superhero knockoff awkwardly shoved, Turducken-style, inside a reasonably charming pastiche of “The Iron Giant.” But though its plot element are so stock you could use them to make soup, there’s something a little trickier going on with its final moments. As in “Frozen,” which Robinson also cites, “Big Hero 6’s” fake death follows a real and irrevocable one. In pointed contrast to the last-minute rescues at the climax of both films, the deaths of Hiro’s brother, Tadashi, in “Big Hero 6” and Anna and Elsa’s parents in “Frozen” are underplayed and unseen: Arendelle’s king and queen vanish beneath a wave, and Tadashi simply dashes offscreen, toward a flaming building from which he will never emerge. As death so often does, theirs come without warning, and with an abrupt finality that leaves the surviving children in shock.

Baymax’s puffy white frame makes him look like a sentient dollop of Cool Whip, but it also marks him as a cuddly, robotic ghost, both built and programmed by Hiro’s dead brother. His soul — the part that survives the vortex when his physical frame does not — is a memory card with Tadashi’s name scrawled on the label, literally and metaphorically imbued with his maker’s touch. What’s at stake isn’t Baymax’s easily replaceable body but his animating spark, the nurturing spirit of Hiro’s brother rather than the anger and the lust for vengeance that threatens to obliterate it. Blogger Mary Cordner, who lost her brother to cancer in 2013, writes

I know a lot of people talked about how this scene got them so sad due to the bond Hiro and Baymax develop throughout the movie. Hiro now sees Baymax beyond just a bot he can use. But, I read the scene a little differently — projecting my own experience no doubt. Hiro didn’t want to let go of Baymax because of the bond, sure, but also because that is all he physically had left of his brother. To let go of Baymax was letting go of Tadashi all over again.

Even in retrospect, Tadashi’s death isn’t rendered significant: He simply got in the way of the movie’s easily identified villain, just as Anna and Elsa’s parents are swallowed by the unreasoning sea. They die, as Molly Eichel puts it in her reminiscence of “Sesame Street’s” heartbreaking “Farewell, Mr. Hooper,” “just because.” 
By placing the inexplicable deaths at the beginning of their stories rather than the end, or even midway, as with the generation-traumatizing killing of Bambi’s mother, Disney ensures that the aisles won’t be clogged with sobbing children and angry parents; there’s time to work through them, if not forget them. The “good guy’s dead, now he’s not” trope is indeed tired, whether it’s in Disney adventures or comic-book movies. But though “Big Hero 6,” which was adapted from an obscure Marvel property, has roots in both, Baymax’s death isn’t a cop-out; it’s a resurrection.

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