This past weekend’s box office numbers are in, and Disney’s latest project Big Hero 6 stands soundly on top. This might not come as a big surprise, considering that Frozen-fever is still holding every auntie’s TV hostage — but the film still breaks ground, especially in the scope of Asian Americans in cinema. And Hollywood should take note.
Big Hero 6 is a robotic sci-fi tale that revolves around Hiro Hamada, Disney’s first explicitly mixed-heritage protagonist. Hamada is voiced by Ryan Potter, who is of Japanese and Caucasian descent himself (our friends at CAAM did a great interview). In fact, the entire film is placed in a “Hapa environment” of sorts, set in San Fransokyo, an architectural and cultural hybrid of the cities the name references.
Casting Asian Americans isn’t new to Disney, whose Mulan in 1998 was voiced by Ming-Na Wen, BD Wong, and George Takei, among others. Still, the studio has been inconsistent when it comes to this matter — the lead role in Lilo & Stitch wasn’t voiced by a Hawaiian (or an Asian Pacific American, for that matter), and we’d have to go as far back as Aladdin or even The Jungle Book to locate another Disney animation starring characters from a broader Asian origin (let’s pretend the Siamese Cats from Lady and the Tramp never happened). Among those mentioned films, the only voice actor of Asian descent was Lea Salonga for Princess Jasmine’s singing parts. So while Big Hero 6 is a fictitious metropolis which never reveals what country it’s actually in, its cultural mash-up of settings, characters and themes means it could very well be Disney’s first Asian/American film that actually stars Asian American actors.
Hollywood’s reputation for placing white actors in Asian roles is a tale as old as time — from Goku in Dragonball: Evolution to Aang in The Last Airbender, glossing over the past century of Asian roles in American film would show little progress since Paul Muni and Luise Rainer donned yellowface in 1937’s The Good Earth. The track record for animation hasn’t been fantastic either, with white actors playing the lead roles in both Avatar series and the English dubs for Dragonball Z and Pokemon (I just ruined my childhood going through those links, BTW. You’re welcome).
I’m not the only one who has been griped by this cinematic phenomenon. When 2010’s The Last Airbender revealed an all-white cast (minus Dev Patel as the villain, of course), it caused such an uproar that an entire website called Racebending was launched against the production, and multiple petitions continue to call for a reboot of the franchise. Director M. Night Shyamalan, who’s Indian American himself, seemed aloof about the matter, insisting that the diversity of the cast and crew was on par with the United Nations. Those who have tried to actually find logic in prioritizing white actors in these roles have eluded to Asian and Asian American actors having less audience appeal than white actors, despite the fact that these films have failed among critics and fans alike.
Enter Big Hero 6, adapted from an obscure Marvel series about a Japanese counterpart to the Avengers. Unlike other Marvel titles like X-Men — which has an existing fanbase, or other Disney films like Maleficent — which is based on a childhood classic, Big Hero 6 relies on Disney’s promotion engine and, more importantly, its characters and storyline. Merely being a Disney film hasn’t always been a shoe-in (anyone watching The Rescuers: Down Under tonight?), but critics and audiences have been singing this one’s praises since it opened at the Tokyo International Film Festival late last month.
Debuting an awesome cartoon about Asians in the land known for cranking out awesome cartoons about Asians is a tough job for anyone, but Big Hero 6‘s ability to exhibit cultural tropes between America and Japan without being overly cheesy or offensive was impressive even to a cinema Grinch like me. Sure, I scoffed a bit at the pagoda-topped Golden Gate Bridge, but I also couldn’t help but feel validated to hear someone on the big screen say “red bean paste” as casually as one would say “hot dog.” The cast is diverse enough to make me suspect at least one member of the talent scout was a former member of the Third World Liberation Front — Potter, along with Daniel Henney, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans, Jr., and Génesis Rodríguez make T.J. Miller and Scott Adsit’s roles the only two not filled by an actor of color.
I must say that I left the film with a bittersweet feeling, as I was disappointed when I didn’t see any Asian American names in the credits among the top-level crew — this is a testament to the fact that much progress is yet to be made. But where Big Hero 6 does succeed is that it actually tried what many of us knew would work all along — make characters that reflect the audience, and hire actors who reflect those characters. So if anyone else in Hollywood is still wondering if our audiences are ready to see more Asian Pacific Americans in the big screen, I’ll leave you with yet another box office dominator:
NOTE: Are you interested in seeing more films where Asian Pacific American actors are playing Asian Pacific American characters?? Come by the Baird Auditorium at the National Museum of Natural History on Saturday November 15 for the Beyond Bollywood Indian American Film Festival!!
Adriel Luis (@DRZZL) is the Curator of Digital and Emerging Media at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, a national resource for discovering the consequence and complexity of the Asian Pacific American experience through collaboration, exhibitions, programs, and digital experiences — and a creative leader in rethinking museums in the digital age.