In the opening moments of this film, I loved its playfulness and cross-cultural references like the name of its location in San Fransokyo and the Asian touches on the Golden Gate Bridge. The animation grabbed me immediately, and it was easy to engage with the characters. Of course, you’d expect that from these guys. Disney are masters of the dramatic arts and know how to play them to commercial advantage, and they’ve built an empire on engaging audiences across ages and cultures.
The film concerns Hiro, a young robot enthusiast who develops a brilliant new concept for robotics in order to gain a scholarship for his brother’s university. He succeeds, but the death of his brother and the theft of his concept present a need to turn from Hiro to hero before he takes up his place in academia.
The cross-cultural elements are particularly interesting, and on the surface at least, reinforce the values of multiculturalism. But I just felt uneasy as I started to notice cultural stereotypes creeping in. Despite a broad brush being applied in the races of the animated characters, it can be observed with some objectivity that all the notable Asian characters were nerds, all the characters with political, financial or academic power were Anglo-Celtic, and the muscles belonged to the African American. Not racist by any means, and the way in which these characters contributed to the functioning of the symbolically-hybridised San Fransokyo is a respectable image, but really, Disney? Is it necessary to reinforce these stereotypes? Could you not just shake it up a little bit? For the kids? Maybe?
To their credit, there are some strong, understated female role models here. The gender balance is better than the race balance, and the catchphrase “woman up” is one I hope will resonate with my daughters. The film is also very strong in character development. Though one of the characters dies early in the film, his presence remains palpable throughout, thanks to the treatment of the central character, whose grief is brilliantly established and expressed.
This really is an excellent film. It has a unique and engaging story, well-developed characters and beautiful animation. But I just feel that little bit uncomfortable with the way it reinforces stereotypes, so I have some hesitation in praising it too highly.