Living to Live Longer: A Review of Big Hero 6
Big Hero 6 came out two years ago. But a few weeks ago I developed an uncomfortable itch for some good Disney animation and I had a feeling that this flick could scratch that itch. Released in October of 2014, it won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and a Kids’ Choice Award for Favorite Animated Movie, and has garnered a Certified Fresh eighty-nine percent on the Tomatometer. The film gods gazed down upon this cinematic creation and, behold, it was very good.
Galvanized by this overwhelmingly affirmative critical response, I hit the play button. But as the minutes ticked by, my smile of eager anticipation slowly transformed into a disappointed pout. Awards and accolades notwithstanding, the animation was just not animating. The movie was bad, my faith in the critics, broken. How could they be so misguided? I knew the reviewers were missing something (this suspicion was later reinforced by their cringe-worthy fawning over the newest Star Wars film), and, after some introspection, I figured out what it was.
Let’s turn back the clock. The groundwork for my epiphany was laid last Thanksgiving, when my Facebook newsfeed was flooded with click bait articles detailing the health benefits of gratitude. Apparently, giving thanks is highly nutritious – the grateful enjoy lower risk of heart disease, decreased blood pressure, and psychological resilience. Reliable Internet purveyors of medical advice encouraged me to adjust my attitude to incorporate more gratitude: Healthline urged me to “keep a gratitude journal” and WebMD advised me to talk to myself “in a creative and optimistic manner” (presumably not in public). I was hooked.
Bizarre prescriptions notwithstanding, this scientific repossession of Thanksgiving came as no shock to me; health-fanaticism is not confined to the holiday season. The cozy crannies of the Internet abound with joyful revelations detailing the health benefits associated with quotidian things. Laughter, happiness, gardening, having a beard attached to one's face, living near trees, having a best friend, and finding purpose in life are just a few items on the rapidly expanding list of things with scientifically proven health benefits.
If only I had known earlier! But no matter – this newfound knowledge propelled me into a rejuvenated lifestyle regulated by the dogmas of dietetics. Newly acquainted with the nutrition facts on happiness, I began to include the recommended daily intake of joy in my diet. Armed with data demonstrating the health benefits of laughter, I more frequently made a concerted effort to giggle. And I indeed found purpose in life: health was to be my overarching goal. I lived in order to live longer.
This way of thinking is, of course, preposterous. But let us be charitable and assume that those who encourage us to laugh for our health really intend to make us laugh at the very notion of laughing for our health. Because sane people laugh at a funny thing, not at a healthy thing. Brussels sprouts are not humorous. Tofu is hardly a laughing matter.
The absurdity of these health recommendations can be partially attributed to their redundancy. Many of these suggested activities are things that people seem to do anyway, without being aware of their health benefits, because they are intrinsically good or enjoyable activities. You shouldn’t have to be told that gratitude is good for your health in order to be thankful. And you shouldn’t wait for researchers to demonstrate that having purpose in life is good for your health in order to seek out the purpose of life.
More importantly, it seems that some of these activities, if pursued for their health benefits, lose much of their value. Not only should these activities be pursued regardless of their nutritional ramifications, but pursuing them in order to avoid heart disease or to increase your projected lifespan seems to horribly undermine the very performance of these activities. Imagine thanking someone for holding the door open for you while silently congratulating yourself on slightly lowering your chances of heart disease. Imagine seeking out friends in order to live a few years longer. Gratitude thus expressed is not gratitude at all. And I would not want to be friends with such a person.
Of course we ought to care about health, but we should not become deluded into thinking that health is a categorical aim. Our wellbeing is important only insofar as it allows us to pursue things that really matter, and this has an important consequence: if our pursuit of health interferes with our ability to achieve things that are intrinsically important, then we are better off ditching health and setting our sights on things with true value.
Remember this when you visit the doctor. When, after evaluating your physical status, your doctor recommends that you quit smoking and cut back on fatty foods, he is not presenting a moral imperative but rather a scientifically-proven conditional: if you discontinue these unhealthy habits, then you are more likely to live a longer life. A doctor’s expertise qualifies him to evaluate and prognosticate a patient’s physical health, and that is all. He can tell people what is good for them, not what is Good for them.
So a patient might wisely disregard his doctor’s advice. A doctor might say that a fatty diet is likely to cause a person to live a shorter life. It is then the patient’s job to answer the more important question of whether he should care. Maybe he would prefer to live a shorter life on a scrumptious diet instead of stretching out his life interminably by pumping himself full of organic preservatives.
We all make this sort of calculation on a daily basis. Consider the safest way to spend a day – perhaps it involves sitting alone in a foam-padded underground nuclear bunker eating vitamins, salad, and whole grain biscuits. Why don’t we spend every day in this manner? And if we must venture outdoors and expose ourselves to the dangers of car accidents, stray dogs, and banana peels, why don’t we at least wear a protective helmet and Kevlar vest at all times? Because we value things other than health, such as friendship, happiness, kindness, fresh air, and looking normal. And we deem it worthwhile to put ourselves in situations of health risk in order to get these things.
The same might even be said for smoking. This habit comes with health risks, but many great thinkers have emphasized the benefits of smoking and its usefulness for relaxation and clarity of thought. Mark Twain lashed out against critics of smokers: “You never try to find out how much solid comfort, relaxation, and enjoyment a man derives from smoking in the course of a lifetime, nor the appalling aggregate of happiness lost in a lifetime by your kind of people from not smoking.” From a religious perspective, C.S. Lewis similarly claimed, “I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.” These thinkers knew that smoking came with health risks, but they realized that the length of our years is much less important than what we do with those years.
How does all this relate to Big Hero 6? The movie involves a number of superheroes, but it centers on a robot named Baymax. Originally constructed by Tadashi Hamada, Baymax falls into the hands of Tadashi’s brother, Hiro, after Tadashi tragically dies while trying to save his professor from a burning university building. A cuddly inflatable humanoid machine, Baymax is originally constructed as a health robot, programmed to scan the people in his vicinity and provide them with medical attention if necessary. He looks like a supersized marshmallow until Hiro dresses him in armored plates, transforming him into a bulletproof, jet-powered, torpedo-launching karate-kicking macho machine.
But something critical is missing from this superhero. Critics variously describe Baymax as “sweet, cuddly, and adorably innocent,” an “irresistible blob of roly-poly robot charisma,” and “impossible not to love.” One could take issue with any of these descriptions, but I can conclusively prove that the third claim is false: I do not love Baymax. I do not love him because I cannot bring myself to identify with a health robot. In fact, it seems to me that a health robot is a rather poor candidate for a superhero.
Sure, it would be nice and useful to have a robot that maximizes the health of people around it – health is often an important precondition for living a productive life. But I want my heroes to be driven by the things that really matter. I want heroes who fight to save their loved ones and to vanquish evil. I want heroes with real emotions and loyalties, heroes who swear revenge on those who wronged them and who struggle with loneliness and self-doubt. But instead of giving us someone with real pathos, Disney gives us a health robot. The heroes of old were motivated by vengeance and wrath, by love for their families and loyalty to their motherlands; the hero of Disney fights to lower his owner’s blood pressure.
It makes sense that Baymax cannot feel basic human emotions, because Baymax is not a human. Physical health is mechanical, and therefore it is something that a well-programmed robot can figure out. But a robot cannot feel passion. Mr. Disney, I respectfully request that you make your next hero care less about health and more about the things that make a hero heroic. And if you can’t manage that, at least make it human.