Let me say this up front: I loved Big Hero 6. A lot. It was probably one of my favorite movies of 2014. Baymax is an instant classic character, and I want to have Honey Lemon’s girly science babies. It’s just a solid, heartfelt, entertaining film.
And I was ready to tap out within the first 10 minutes.
We start out really strong with Hiro’s bot fight. Then Tadashi rescues him from a beatdown and we get the line, “You graduated high school when you were thirteen, and this is what you’re doing?”
Um, I thought. Okay. That’s an awkwardly self-conscious line. But maybe it’s important that we know that right up front. And so I settled back into the fun moped chase, glossing with only a little irritation over the stiff explanation of bot fighting and Hiro referring to his big brother as “big brother.”
Then they get picked up from jail by Aunt Cass, who starts off saying, “For ten years, I have done the best I could to raise you.”
Oh, thought I. Oh dear. But no, it’s cool. That’s not a completely unreasonable thing for a person to say. And indeed, it seemed to be part of a sort of no-filter anxious monologue which turns out to be very much in character for her. We’re still fine.
Then we go upstairs, and there’s this:
TADASHI: What would Mom and Dad say?
HIRO: I don’t know. They’re gone. They died when I was three, remember?
Yup, I thought, that is a thing that happened. That is dialogue that someone got paid to write. Dialogue that survived who knows how many rewrites and script sessions. Dialogue that no one has ever said to a sibling. Ever. In the history of siblings. It was such an utterly painful As You Know that it threw me clean out of the story.
The biggest sin of that exchange is that it is completely, fundamentally, 100% unnecessary. A woman they’ve identified as their aunt already told us that she raised them, so clearly the parents aren’t in the picture. Does it matter why? Do the filmmakers assume that if we see anything other than a traditional nuclear family on screen, we’ll flip our shit and demand an explanation before we can proceed any further? I’ll give you that Tadashi’s line and the first part of Hiro’s response aren’t totally unnatural; Tadashi’s trying to help set his errant brother straight, and it makes sense he’d think about their parents in that context. But there’s no conceivable reason why they’d need to remind each other of how long it’s been. And there’s not even any good reason to remind the audience.
It makes me think of when I saw Up for the first time, with its long, wordless montage of Carl and Ellie’s marriage. When the film cut from the two of them painting a nursery to her sobbing in a doctor’s office, there was a voice from the row behind me, a girl who couldn’t have been older than about 7 or so. I didn’t see who she was talking to, but I heard her quite clearly: “She’s sad because she lost the baby.”
I will never forget that little girl as long as I live.
Audiences and readers are smart. Especially early on, they’re actively trying to connect the dots and put the pieces together. It’s okay to trust them to draw certain conclusions on their own, especially when the story won’t suffer if they don’t get to exactly the same spot you had in mind. And indeed, if you leave some things to your audience to fill in with their own imagination, that collaborative quality will make them more invested in the story (this is known as the IKEA effect). But it’s not “connect the dots” if the dots are so densely packed that they’re pretty much a line already.
Like I said, I do love this movie, and the clunky opening isn’t a dealbreaker. Almost immediately after that pointless line, we go to Tadashi’s lab and meet his classmates; the scene is still expository, but we’ve moved from As You Know to Naive Newcomer, so it makes sense within the story, and things get moving after that. But then, it would take a lot to get me to walk out of a movie theater. If I were flipping through channels on cable, or if this were a book? I’d have done an Immerse or Die and pulled the plug after the third WTF.
Personally, I favor erring on the side of too little exposition. Beta readers and editors can help you find the balance, but I’ve always found it easier to add in extra clarification than to try to figure out what can be safely removed. What’s important is that you trust in the power of your own words and images, and trust in the ability of your readers to follow your lead. You don’t have to hit us over the head with it, I promise. If you sell short your audience, you’re going to sell yourself short, too.