Sunday, January 18, 2015

Analysis: Let's Talk About Baymax's Character Writing

Fanart by ZMAnonymous

That is, if you've seen the movie. If not, this is wayyyy too spoily for you. Go see it.

In many ways, Big Hero 6 was a fairly predictable movie that depended on lovable characters to make up for a superhero plot that was fairly easy to decypher. Mainly, it depended on a specific lovable character above the rest.

Naturally, I'm talking about the inflatable marshmallow.

I think it's easy to take Baymax for granted, and even become cynical towards the film if you do. On the surface, he's a mascot character that is even designed to be cute within the confines of the story, takes over what is an otherwise B+ superhero film, and sells so many plush toys Disney had trouble keeping up with the demand over the holidays.

But looking back on the film, you realize Baymax is not just the cutest member of the BH6, but possibly the most complex to boot. He's an advanced AI, but as the film progresses, it becomes hard to see him at just the chip that is sitting in his data port.

In fact, Big Hero 6 made me think harder about the line between artificial intelligence and human intelligence - and made me question harder than ever if that line could logically be surpassed - than any science fiction film actively trying to bring that question front and center.

For most of the film, Baymax is clearly no more than the sum of his programming. In fact, that's Baymax's main gimmick. He's a walking marshmallow SIRI nurse. He constantly causes trouble because he's limited to the intelligence programmed into him, and he wasn't programmed for most of the things Hiro drags him through.

But after Hiro and Baymax fly through Sanfransokyo, you hit the first major point of interest. The two of them are sitting on a blimp, and Baymax recalls a conversation with Hiro from earlier.

Hiro: Woah, that was...
Baymax: Sick.

Hiro looks up at him, surprised.

Baymax: It is just an expression.

To which Hiro replies:

Hiro: That's right buddy.

When he replies, he's stuttering, still clearly caught off guard about Baymax figuring out the expression.

"Oh," I say, as an audience member "that was actually really smart for Baymax. But seeing how AIs can learn and he has access to the internet to look up slang and such, it's not impossible. In fact, it would make sense for a care-taking robot to try and understand the language/slang/terminology his patient uses."

Later on in the film, Hiro has just abused Baymax in an attempt to kill Callinghan - an act which Baymax actively protested before his chip was remove.

Baymax: Hiro, this is not what Tadashi-

And later, when Hiro tries again, actively protests to the point of refusing to open his data port. Again, this is nothing that can't be explained away. "Wow, that's quite smart... but it would make sense for a robot that could be weaponized to have strong defensive programming," I say, ignoring the nervous chuckle in the back of my mind.

Finally, we reach towards the end of the film. Baymax proposes saving Hiro at the expense of his own "Life". It's sad, but he's just an AI, right? Hiro could always just reprogram him from Tadashi's notes, right?

"Hiro. I will always be with you."

...Well crap. It was at this point that I broke down in the theater, curling up and staring at the floor for a few seconds. With that line, Baymax clearly became more than the sum of his programming. He clearly had a personal attachment to Hiro and a level of understanding that went beyond reading some counseling guides off a database.

And if there was still any doubt, when Hiro hugs Baymax one last time, Baymax closes his eyes.

Gif (and the next one) by hookediero

I repeat: Baymax closes his eyes.

Something he has not done at any other point in the film.

Baymax usually shows very little emotion with his eyes during the film. He blinks, which makes sense from a programmer's perspective because a robot staring at you soullessly can get kinda creepy. He is all over the place when his battery is low, but that bit seems to run more on "Well, it's funny" than an active attempt to express that Baymax has a personality. But at this point, late in the film, he closes his eyes.

Good programming practices - which Tadashi clearly had - dictates that you should include as little code as possible to make the program user friendly and do the job it needs to do. Hiro cannot see Baymax closing his eyes when they hug. Nobody but the audience sees Baymax closing his eyes. There is absolutely zero reason this action would be programmed into him, because the patient can’t see it. Baymax closing his eyes during a hug offers no emotional or physical benefit to Hiro. Rather, Baymax closes his eyes because of his OWN emotions.

And to stress again the growth of Baymax's character, he does so again when the two hug right before the credits roll.

But why is this important? We loved Baymax before we knew he was developing emotions, right? What point did the filmmakers have in showing us that Baymax had developed into a sentient being?

Because of Hiro.

Without Baymax developing a mind of his own, you could look back at Big Hero 6, after all pathos has washed over you, and might say: "Wow, I feel sorry for Hiro. His best friend is a program his brother made that he's using as a replacement because he can't deal with the pain." But Disney thrives off true love, true friendship, and the like. To even leave Baymax not actually caring about Hiro a possibility would have been against everything Disney movies are about.

Instead, when we think about Hiro and Baymax hard enough, we get this: Hiro has kept losing the people closest to him throughout his life. He lost his parents. He lost Tadashi. And then he thinks he’ll lose Baymax. But that’s the thing about Baymax: he is a program. A mysterious program that has somehow gained its own mind, but a program in a chip. Both surprisingly human and not human and all. Having the reliability and stability of a robot and the love and genuine care of a human. If anything happened to his body, there’s his chip, and possibly a backup system that Hiro would create to avoid the chance of losing him again. Hiro has the ability to ensure that Baymax is all but immortal. Baymax is something that, with a little forethought, no amount of accidents can take away from Hiro.

And he just - with a real heart and real emotions, not just an extension of Tadashi's - promised Hiro that he'd always be by his side.

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