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Big Hero 6 is the anti-violence superhero movie you've been waiting for

Big Hero 6.
Big Hero 6.
(Walt Disney Studios)

On its surface, Disney's wonderful animated film Big Hero 6 is just another tale of superheroes and mad scientist villains. A young robotics genius named Hiro teams up with his nerdy friends to outsmart a villain. The film has a great script, and a fantastic voice cast. Its look is gorgeous, and much has been made about the new technologies Disney developed to achieve its aesthetic quality.

But still. You've heard this story before, right?

Sure. But what you might not have heard before is the way this film laces that basic story with beautiful themes that push back against some of the assumptions of the genre. This is a movie about how nonviolence can work more effectively than violence, about how even the worst of us deserve empathy, and about how true love is more than just romance. Pretty cool stuff for a "kids" film.

First, though, some background on the film's story.

At 14 years old, Hiro Hamada has a natural talent for designing mind-blowing new technologies, one shared by his big brother, Tadashi. Tadashi puts his talent to good use, but Hiro squanders his in underground robot fights. Concerned that his little brother is squandering his potential, Tadashi takes Hiro for a quick tour of his university's lab, setting a tragic series of events in motion that culminate in Tadashi's death.

The potential darkness of this is leavened by Baymax. A giant, inflatable white robot that is oh-so-huggable, Tadashi invented Baymax as a "healthcare companion," a cross between an emergency technician and a grandma with plenty of hugs and chicken soup to get you over that sore throat. Now, he's a reminder of the brother Hiro lost — and a being just strong enough to enact the revenge Hiro so clearly desires, if only he could figure out how to override the robot's programming.

All of this sets the stage perfectly to consider the film's deeper themes.

1) Nonviolence

Much of the time on the big screen, epic battles between good and evil are framed in terms of violent confrontations — even if that violence happens to be kid-friendly and comedic, as it often is in Disney films. But this assumption of violence needing to be answered with more violence too often goes unquestioned. Maybe there's a better way?

Hiro's discovery of the true identity of the person who killed his brother unleashes an understandable impulse in the boy: a desire for revenge.

But because Tadashi designed Baymax with something very like the Hippocratic oath, the cuddly robot isn't able to do any harm to anyone — not even villains. Hiro inevitably finds a way to override this, and without Tadashi's ethics guiding him, Baymax turns into a killing machine.

In the most gripping scene of the film, Baymax is finally the pure instrument of revenge Hiro obviously wanted him to be — and it's not fun or exciting. Instead, it's terrifying.

Baymax was meant to heal and mend. He learned to fight later, but that's not who he is. Big Hero 6 argues that violence isn't the natural state of humanity, but it's still one we can too easily fall into. It's a learned behavior — we literally have to be reprogrammed to accept it. But if we're not careful, it will become the one that sticks. The rest of the film encourages the characters to find ways to save the day without resorting to violence. It's refreshing and bold.

Hiro and Baymax

Baymax and Hiro.

2) Complicated villains

The best villains are those who believe their cause to be just, and Big Hero 6 absolutely delivers that. The villain's motive for wanting Hiro's microbots is deeply understandable: he needs them to help get back his daughter.

She, we learn, was a test pilot for an experimental teleportation program. When her test flight failed, leaving her stuck in a cosmic portal, her father vowed to have his revenge on the owner of the company she worked for. (Again, the corrupting influence of revenge reverberates through the film.)

But revenge is not justice, and our villain isn't less of a bad man despite his motives. However, his back-story does complicate his villainy — in fact, it's hard not to feel for him, something too many animated films lack. By creating a three-dimensional bad guy, whose malice is nothing more than misguided grief, the film teaches its target audience a valuable lesson about empathy.

3) True love demands sacrifice

Disney has been reinventing the meaning of true love in many of its recent films. Just remember how Frozen subverted the traditional idea of true love's kiss.

This is no less true for Big Hero 6, where true love often means making the ultimate sacrifice. The selfless act of Tadashi sacrificing his own life so that others might survive is the backdrop for the entire story, after all.

But these ideals also underline the relationship between Hiro and Baymax. At one point, late in the film, the two are able to rescue the villain's daughter, something that will mean diving headfirst into an unknown world to save someone they've never met. That in itself is an act of heroism.

But it soon becomes clear that both will not be able to make it back to our world, not without a huge sacrifice on one of their parts. To say what happens would be spoiling things (though if you've ever seen a Disney film, you will absolutely be able to guess what does, just from reading this rough description), but suffice it to say that love conquers all — just not in the way we might be used to.

That idea of "love" comes up in so many films. We're positively obsessed with the idea that two people could randomly meet, gratuitously romp through a bubbly courtship, and live happily ever after. But while these stories can teach us plenty of things about romance, they rarely teach us lessons about love. Love is weightier. It can come at the highest of prices. It requires investment and dedication and sacrifice. And it requires trying to heal and mend what once was broken.

These are all qualities medical robot Baymax has for his young patient, Hiro. But instead of just offering physical healing, Baymax also offers Hiro emotional healing, a chance to move on and maybe even to grow. Big Hero 6 may not have the world's most original story, but the purity of its themes — as expressed in this relationship — shines through all the same.

Come back every day of December for Vox's picks of some of our favorite pop culture of 2014.

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