Sometimes animated films get short shrift. It’s so easy to marginalize them as “kid” films, and dismiss the advanced storytelling techniques they use. A couple of weekends ago, I watched Disney’s BIG HERO 6. This year’s Oscar winner for best animated film is about a young tech wiz who pulls together a team of nerds to bring down the evil genius who killed his brother. Despite its very contemporary visual style and themes, the film’s narrative follows The Hero’s Journey– a story structure identified by Joseph Campbell in his study of myths and fairy tales.
Let’s break it down, and see how BIG HERO 6 uses this ancient story model as the spine for its to narrative!
ORDINARY WORLD—Hiro, a young man, is sitting in a dark alley “bot fighting.” Looking like a rube, he loses the first battle, but then nails the other guy’s machine. Turns out Hiro is a bot “shark.” He’s about to get his butt kicked by his opponent, when he’s rescued by his older brother Tadashi. They race through the city, but are caught by the police and put into jail. Their aunt has to bail them out and is upset.
Tadashi tells Hiro he’s wasting his life– Hiro graduated from high school at 13 and is smart. Tadashi takes him to his college lab to show him what he’s working on.
CALL TO ADVENTURE—Hiro enters the lab and is dazzled by all the cool inventions his brother’s nerdy friends are making. Tadashi shows him his own invention, a healthcare robot called Baymax. A big, puffy, large-hearted “healthcare provider,” Baymax can scan people for symptoms and is programmed with over 10,000 medical procedures. He can’t deactivate his services until you say, “I am satisfied with my care.”
Hiro is so impressed that he immediately wants to enroll in nerd school. But his brother tells him that first he has to come up with an invention that will blow Professor Callaghan away. Hiro invents thousands of tiny bots that he can control with his thoughts. At the Student Showcase, everyone is amazed by Hiro’s “bots,”including Callahan.
MEETING WITH THE MENTOR: Alistair Krei, a tech CEO, says he wants to buy Hiro’s invention. Prof Callaghan tells Hiro that Krei is a crook—don’t trust him. Hiro doesn’t sell to Krei and Callaghan welcomes Hiro to the program. But there’s a huge explosion, and when Tadashi rushes back into the building to save Callahan, he is killed.
REFUSAL TO THE CALL: Hiro is distraught, depressed. His aunt encourages him to go to school, and the other “nerds” say they miss him, but Hiro throws the registration materials away.
CROSSING THE THRESHOLD: While in his room, Hiro accidentally inflates Baymax. Under his brother’s bed, Hiro also finds one of his own tiny bots that wasn’t destroyed in the explosion. It seems to want to find other bots. But weren’t they destroyed too? Baymax rushes out of the house to find the other bots. Hiro races after him.
TESTS ALLIES AND ENEMIES: After a nerve racking chase through the city, Baymax leads Hiro to a warehouse. They climb inside and Hiro discovers tiny bots, just like his own, being manufactured. Someone’s making more.
Suddenly, the bots rise up and become threatening. As Hiro and Baymax are chased, they see an evil dude with a Kabuki mask who is controlling the bots.
Hiro goes to the cops, but they don’t believe him. Baymax wonders where Tadashi is. Hiro says he’s gone. Baymax points to himself and says, “Tadashi is here.” Hiro discovers the explosion wasn’t an accident. The guy in the Kabuki mask is responsible for Tadashi’s death. They have to catch him.
Hiro “updates” Baymax’s programming– now he can fight and has protective armor. He looks tough. Hiro puts in a new mircrochip marked with skull and crossbones next to the smiley face chip that Tadashi programmed.
Hiro and Baymax go back to the warehouse and are attacked by the tiny bots. The nerd friends show up and try to help him. They are chased through the city by the Kabuki guy. They escape.
Hiro realizes that the bad guy in the mask is Krei. All five of the nerds decide they have to be superheroes to fight Krei. They each develop and practice some amazing fighting skills. They all set off to find Krei.
APPROACH TO THE INMOST CAVE: Baymatch’s super sensor finds Krei on an island. The six friends break into the compound and discover, via video footage, that Krei shot an astronaut named Abigail into space, and she died. Krei shows up in his mask. The nerds attack him. One by one, Krei disables them. Baymax attacks him and the mask comes off. It’s professor Callaghan! He didn’t die in the explosion. He built the bots and is responsible for Tadashi’s death.
ORDEAL: Hiro is so angry that he throws out Tadashi’s smiley face chip. Baymax can now kill. Baymax chases Callahan and attacks everyone. The nerds put Tadashi’s smiley face chip back into Baymax to stop him. Hiro’s friends say they don’t want to destroy Callahan, they just want to catch him. Hiro wants him dead. He takes Baymax off by himself. He starts to permanently take out Tadashi’s chip, but accidentally activates a video that shows his brother’s efforts to create a healer not a killer. Hiro cries.
SEIZING THE SWORD: Hiro’s friends show up. Hiro apologizes. He says that they’ll catch Callahan and do it right.
THE ROAD BACK: The gang discovers that Abigail, the astronaut who was accidentally killed, was Callahan’s daughter.
RESURRECTION: Krei is making a speech and the nerds arrive. Callahan shows up with the bots and confronts Krei, “You took everything from me, now I’m taking everything from you.” Hiro says, “Is this what Abigail would want?” But Callahan won’t back down. There’s a huge fight. Baymax is injured, Hiro almost gets sucked up into the dangerous portal that Callahan has created. His friends are trapped.
Hiro figures out a way to break apart the bots so they get sucked up into the portal. But Baymax detects signs of life in the portal. It’s Abigail. She’s in hypersleep, still alive. Hiro and Baymax go into the portal to save her. They rescue Abigail, but the only way to get Hiro and Abigail back to earth is for Baymax to sacrifice himself and stay behind. Baymax asks, “Are you satisfied with your care?” Hiro says he can’t lose him too. Baymax replies, “I will always be with you.” They hug. Baymax pulls the thruster which pushes Hiro and Abigail back through the portal.
RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR: An ambulance takes Abigail to the hospital. Callahan is arrested. Hiro and his friends are back at nerd school. Hiro creates a new Baymax. Inside is the Tadashi chip. They hug. At the very end, we smell sequel city. Hiro says to his friends, “My brother wanted to help a lot of people and that’s what we’re going to do. What are we? Big Hero Six!”
Take Action! See how this movie finds it shape in the The Hero’s Journey? Can you use this structural model to plot your own book or screenplay? Can we see your protagonist in his or her ordinary world, get a call to adventure then cross the threshold into the “special world?” Do they enter a “cave” and have to face the darkness inside themselves? Remember, the Hero’s Journey can be used for any kind of story– memoir, horror, sci fi, even literary fiction.