Big Hero 6 is Missing some Big Ideas

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I would be lying if I said I didn’t come out of Big Hero 6 grinning like a fool. I wanted a cute, fun watch and that’s what I got—with some surprises. Gogo was certainly refreshingly sassy and ornery without a need to prove her anti-femininity—the moment when she cradles the devastated Hiro in her arms without it seeming even slightly out of character is a great one. The “strong female character” (a trope that is incredibly problematic) has been waiting a long time for a manifestation who can be both overly dominating and charmingly loving.

The aunt is incredible, just great. The fairly blatant mispronunciation of the Japanese names by almost everyone other than Honey Lemon (and is she trying too hard?) is somewhere between fascinatingly charming and truly bizarre. Visually, it’s a gorgeous film. The flight scene with Hiro and Baymax is definitely enough to rival the most beautiful dragon aerials in How to Train Your Dragon 2.

And, of course, the fist-bump  was somehow, bizarrely, impenetrably entertaining. But there are still inherent problems with the narrative.

Why does Hiro need to go to university if he’s smarter than all of the other students combined? The fact that he single-handedly enriches their research so that it’s immediately accessible and functional feels a little too reminiscent of the prodigal male saviour—just, this time, he’s not white. I was waiting for Big Hero 6 to take on a little Mystery Men– flavour, for each of the characters to throw in their own talents to create super suits that represented their individuality. Instead, they became cronies immediately. This was particularly disconcerting for me, more so than the lacklustre “who dunnit” mystery that takes up the first half of the film. The attempted bildungsroman about a boy who learns to rely on other people falls short, and instead we’re left with a story about a boy and his fighting robot that turns into a story about a boy and his healing robot.

The film would have benefited from a main character who was fallible in ways other than depression, especially when that depression was so easily dealt with through the most clichéd of ableist suggestions: “Just get out of bed already.” Hiro at the start is charming, confrontational, and motivated. Hiro at the end is normalized and, honestly, still a narcissist. Just not a criminal narcissist.

Then there’s the fact that the entire plot hinged on a character who only appeared halfway through the film and never had a speaking line.

At the end of it all, it felt like the best-developed character died within the first half hour of the film, like the characters who had individuality were soon rendered obsolete or deranged, and like the plot was designed for some socially  defined concept of ten-year-olds (who, I insist, are much smarter than media producers give them credit for). Cute, fun, and worth a night at the movies? Absolutely.

But, unfortunately, probably not more than that.

-contributed by Kerrie McCreadie



Descriptive Science Fiction and Ursula K. Le Guin: An Appreciation

The first time I read The Left Hand of Darkness, I did not get very far.

I didn’t make it past the first thirty pages the second or third times, either. Something about Ursula K. Le Guin made me stumble and stop. She discomforted me, made me anxious—as, I would later learn to appreciate, some of the best authors do. So I put it down for a few years, went to university, and read other books. Then, during the summer between my sophomore and junior years, I gave it one last try—fourth times the charm.

And it was.

Science fiction and fantasy were mother’s milk to me growing up but it made sense that I’d had so much trouble getting through The Left Hand of Darkness. The book is about Othering and that sense of discomfort about other worlds—all sorts of them: social, gendered, analogical, and physical.

“I’ll make my reports as if I told a story…” Genly Ai, one of the novel’s protagonists, begins. Genly’s awareness of his own story-telling—of his myth-making, his fact-fabricating—allows the book to circumvent escapist reading, to circumvent the expected manner of reading speculative fiction. Le Guin herself writes in the introduction that science fiction is often described as escapist by those who do not read it. But science fiction, she corrects, is “not predictive”—it is not fantasy, not a whimsy of the writer. Instead, it is descriptive, analogical, and allegorical; it is about the “real” world.

Genly, an explorer of worlds, does not know the planet Winter—where winter is eternal and the inhabitants take on genders only in order to procreate, biologically and socially. He reports on it as a pair of stranger’s eyes, is alienated by it, and, eventually, is exiled by the very culture he has been trying to document. He is almost as distanced from Winter as we are, and, based on his self-acknowledged reporting, just as aware of his experience being a fiction.

I was incredibly impressed that there was a text that could cross the bridge between literary classic and genre masterpiece—something my pre-university-institutionalized self thought was rare. Now, however, I am often surprised by the way writers and critics of fantasy seem to feel the need to defend their works: they are not only under the scrutiny of whether it is good literature but also under the scrutiny of whether their work should, on the whole, even be considered literature at all.

Left Hand of Darkness, with its talk of fact and fiction, points its finger at realism and shouts that it is little more than an unimaginative analogy (and so no different from their more imaginative cousins, speculative literature)—for what is any literature, regardless of genre, Le Guin seems to ask, other than signifiers structuring close approximations to the stories so privileged as to receive the title of “the real”?

Le Guin’s attachment to post-structuralist semiotic tendencies is glaringly obvious. Every time I return to Left Hand, I smile to myself at the heavy-handed ways in which categorical constructions are analyzed so blatantly—Genly laments, when Estraven asks him the difference between women and men on Earth, that he “can’t tell [him] what women are like…[and that he’s] never thought about it much in the abstract”. Left Hand of Darkness aggressively attacks the boundaries between man and woman, dislike and like, description and extrapolation, dragging readers into the fuzzy blurry space between recognized categories. Under the war-cry of science fiction description, and the importance of imagination in creating worthwhile literature, The Left Hand of Darkness threw me into a world where I was faced with a type of reading I hadn’t encountered before.

When I started trying to read Left Hand, I wasn’t used to speculative fiction that straddled the (supposedly opposing) realms of fantasy and literature. Strangely, even as a fan of fantasy and science fiction, I often valued the genre for its seeming simplicity. Growing up with kids who filled binders full of Harry Potter research, I was never so gauche as to believe that it actually was simple, but the ease of reading popular fantasy was appealing to me. Young Adult literature, especially: I was never a fast reader, and simple genre fiction let me go through books more quickly than I was used to.

The Left Hand of Darkness compromised that. It threw slow, more difficult reading at me when I wasn’t expecting it, and it offended my sensibilities regarding contemporary speculative fiction. Despite this offence, though, Le Guin still managed to inspire me. She challenged me to accept this new speculative fiction that refused to let me escape, and the marriage Left Hand proposes between literature and speculative literature has given me an incredible amount of pleasure. Once the book that I couldn’t pick up, it’s now the one I can’t put down—and the one I force into the hands of the friends and family around me.

The title of the book comes from a saying in Winter, and Estraven shares it with Genly:

“Light is the left hand of darkness/and darkness the right hand of light./Two are one, life and death, lying/together like lovers in kemmer,/like hands joined together,/like the end and the way”.

It is a marker of alienation—Genly’s, Estraven’s, and the reader’s. And when we, as readers, join with the The Left Hand of Darkness, we also come together with the concept of the left hand of darkness. Awareness of the Other seeps into every page of the novel, and Others us from the novel; it draws attention to our relationship with texts themselves, and how their descriptions of the world differ and are Other from our own. It tells the story of telling stories, of potential facts we might take on and wear, of meeting with these stories and—just maybe—becoming more whole having done so.

-contributed by Kerrie McCreadie

The Invisible Ones: The Speculative Fictions of Mental Health Discourse

I was at a meeting at the start of the 2013-2014 school year and we were at the portion of the day where we were discussing disabilities and equity. When the slideshow finished, I put up my hand—something I don’t do often at large-form, no-name events.

“I’m concerned,” I said. “Because there wasn’t a mention of invisible disabilities.”

The slideshow had—and for very good reasons —covered physical disability, radicalized biases, and religious differences. Mental health, however, had been completely skipped over.

Strange, I thought, in a world where so many students struggle with anxiety disorders, personality disorders, mood disorders, and learning disabilities. As a student leader, I knew how important it was to make sure appropriate accessibility structures were put in place. As a student who struggles with depression, anxiety, and other invisible mental needs, I know how much I appreciate it when they’re in place for me.

“Sorry,” said the girl at the front. “I mean, I’d love to talk about equity for hours. But there just isn’t time for everything.”

Equity: there just isn’t enough time for everything.

I can’t blame her, really. There isn’t. Equity is often at best treated as a boring requirement, just specific topics that must be covered in order to make sure people behave in certain institutionalized manners.

The treatment of all minorities needs work, I could hear her say, but we need to make sure the ones that people can see are being taken care of first.

The ones we can’t see are less likely to be heard.

Now let’s talk about this in literature.

Just before the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign took over twitter, I read this article on mental health in YA literature. Take a look at it—it’s well worth the read, and is what inspired me to write this post.

For those of you who don’t read it, here’s the skinny: in intrusion fantasy, the fact that main characters are more comfortable with magic actually existing in the real world than they are with having a possible mental disorder (which they never speak to an authority figure about) harms the normalization of accessibility needs in contemporary culture. Why, in any world, is it more reassuring to realize that the vampires who want to kill you exist, rather than having a good old-fashioned mental disorder that causes hallucinations?

Personally, I’d go for the hallucinations.

In the first issue of The Spectatorial, we published an essay on Puella Magi Madoka Magica, which my boyfriend and I have taken to describing as: “what would happen if the Sailor Soldiers got PTSD from their battles”. We found this series refreshing and engaging. It addressed the trauma the characters were going through and managed to keep the plot from revolving around that trauma, something that is rarely accomplished. Unrealistic reactions run rampant in YA speculative fiction, as Olivia writes in the linked post above.

Take everyone’s favourite discussion piece: Twilight. The portrayal of Bella’s depression after Edward leaves in New Moon is harmful because it misrepresents mental illness in a way that suggests it’s for attention, and can be solved by that same attention being given from a specific source. This suggests that a woman, or a stereotypically submissive partner, needs a supernatural amount of attention from a man, or a stereotypically dominant partner. Edward is often considered the abusive party of the two in contemporary discussions, but a partner who threatens to commit suicide unless their significant other does what they want them to is severely abusive. This isn’t recognized in the text, and is romanticized by its readers. Mental instability is normalized as a romantic ideal, and the requirement of a superhuman level of care is the only thing that can normalize Bella’s behaviour again. The speculative part of the text superimposes an unhealthy role onto male/dominant partners where they must be afraid of and are responsible for the female/submissive partner’s self-destruction.

But this isn’t by any means just a YA literature issue. The intrusion fantasy complex Olivia describes is present in many classic adult literature books. And since reading her article, I’ve taken to considering some other damaging mental health messages certain widely accepted tropes have solidified:

  • The higher stakes represented in fantasy novels should be met with equal reactions.
  • A protagonist in a popularized fantasy is often recovering from trauma and abuse without categorizing it as such. Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Fitzchivalry—the strong white male lead who wants nothing better than to get even with the person who’s hurt them. To me, this represents an interesting fantasy where the victim eventually heals only after managing to successfully challenge and beat their abuser. (Jung’s shadow-narrative puts an interesting spin on this, but taken literally, these narratives are interestingly confrontational.)
  • We need more characters who are experiencing mental difficulties and who talk about it: people who are further along the healing process, at different levels, interacting in different ways. Not just the HEALED and the SEVERELY TRAUMATIZED.
  • Abusive people are not cool just because they’re supernatural. Privilege, whether it’s on the food chain or in terms of God-to-man, should not be an excuse for bad behaviour. “Belief” is often enough for a character to gain a hold on their magical powers. It would be great if we got closer to the characters who went through this process, and could sense what underlying needs—since they obviously can’t access a normative amount of magic, or social prowess—these characters address. Not bluntly; just sensitively. This applies whether it’s Schmendrick the Magician or Elsa the Snow Queen.

Like the girl who spoke at that meeting, I could go on here for a while. But in the midst of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, I’d like to finish by pitching something else we need: critical readers who analyze how mental health operates in speculative texts. We need to demand psychologically accurate and sensitive portrayals of characters’ experiences from our authors. The unrealistic portrayal of mentality in fantasy books is, I feel, one of the things that keeps speculative fiction separated from popular literary works.

Our speculative characters shouldn’t be blank slates onto whom we can superimpose psychoanalytic archetypes—they should live and breathe the same as their general fiction counterparts.

Moreover, they should talk. They should make themselves visible.

(And also they should probably start letting doctors know when they see fairies chillin’ DT. Just saying.)

-contributed by Kerrie McCreadie

Castle in the Sky: Entering Miyazaki’s World With Guillermo del Toro @ TIFF Bell Lightbox

The first time I watched Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky I was twelve and sitting in my basement alone. I had been watching Miyazaki movies since I was nine, when I had that—I’m sure, all too familiar—realization courtesy of Princess Mononoke that “cartoons”, too, could be violent. At the time I ran an anime club out of my middle school’s English class, I collected Shonen Jump, and I could hold a five-hour conversation on the intricacies of InuYasha (yes, I was that kid). But even then, deep in the thralls of my anime obsession and willing to watch anything that came out of Japan (anything), I could feel that magical something that makes Miyazaki films almost perfect.

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I’ve grown up with that sense of magic. Ten years later, going to see Castle in the Sky at TIFF Bell Lightbox was a completely different experience. First of all, I most certainly wasn’t alone; by the time I got to the theatre (accompanied by my always-charming SO) there was only room in Cinema 1 for pairs to sit together on the balcony. It was a comforting balance between the aloneness of my once-childhood home and the insanity of the anime convention video rooms I frequented in High School.

Second of all, I most certainly wasn’t the only person in that room who could hold a five-hour conversation about anime.

With a sense of prideful glee, TIFF Artistic Director Noah Cowan announced their guest as, “Guillermo del Totoro!”—the introduction was marred only by the fact that del Toro was too focused on autographs and handshakes downstairs to be able to make it to the show on time. It took two more enthusiastic introductions and, assumedly, a handful of intimidated young TIFF staff to get del Toro onto the stage.

Castle in the Sky tells the story of Sheeta, a young girl in possession of a mysterious magical stone. When the airship castleinthesky
Sheeta is on is attacked by pirates after the stone, she falls from the ship and lands, unconscious, in a small mining community. Pazu, a young engineer/miner-in-training with dreams of finding the mythical floating castle Laputa, takes the girl home and nurses her back to health—at least, until the pirates and the army show up, both trying to steal the stone from Sheeta. Throughout the film, these three factions battle for possession of the stone that will lead them back to Laputa, and all of the power it possesses (If it sounds familiar, watch Miyazaki’s film and then watch Disney’s Atlantis. Yes, that’s right, Disney did it again—remember Kimba?).

Del Toro launched immediately into his love of Miyazaki films, explaining how My Neighbour Totoro changed his life (and that, later on, it was one of the only things that would keep his daughter from crying). He discussed his love of the futile gestures in Miyazaki, small character traits like the father in Totoro not being able to put his shoe on immediately or like Pazu not being able to cut the rope between himself and Sheeta when they first land on Laputa. Del Toro honoured the power of the female characters in Miyazaki films, so different from the repetitive and stereotypical character sketches of Hollywood. When asked by Cowan if Miyazaki had ever failed, del Toro had one question: would you ever ask whether Picasso had gotten the perspective wrong?

He then criticized Western film, discussing how much he hated adding plot summary or historical information to scripts; with great exasperation, he exclaimed that he just “wanted the fucking movie!”. Miyazaki gives you the movie. He gives you the world, the characters—notably, del Toro discussed the lovely simplicity of the features of Miyazaki’s characters—, and the beautiful settings. He respects his audience enough to assume that they will follow something intelligent. His films are experiences; every time you watch them, there’s something new. Films like Princess Mononoke, My Neighbour Totoro, and Castle in the Sky (among others) carry with them the weight of a beautifully crafted novel; Miyazaki is a master of producing genre works worthy of critical acclaim.

This, perhaps, is the magic of Miyazaki; del Toro says that there are hints of Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki in everything, bread crumbs of influence left all throughout today’s animation styles. You had a sense, watching him speak, that if he had had complete creative control over Pacific Rim it would have resembled a Miyazaki film significantly more than a mecha film in the canon of Cameron’s Avatar (white, expressionless male with a sad past saves all in genre setting). Miyazaki’s films pervade contemporary culture, engaging children and adults alike, winning Academy Awards while remaining heartwarming classics, and using genre in a way that makes it accessible across so many critical platforms.

The magic of Miyazaki is that everyone notices the magic.