Does Science Always Work? When Disney started to add science-fiction elements to a classic fantasy plot which still follows the Disney formula, does the collision bring about sparks? Or actually the chemistry just did not work?

Honestly speaking, technology is now everywhere.

Nobody write and send letters anymore, because we now have emails; face-to-face communication also seems no longer that important, thanks to social media! At the same time, how we tell a story and what we say in that story are also changed by this technology explosion. Movies themselves are just a case in point: it is already more "techy" than books, even if we only count into the "moving image", not to mention the ceaselessly emerging new techniques like special sound effects and 3D imaging.

Technology is now dominating our life. Source: Google Pictures.

In the meantime, Disney also keeps up with the times.

Originally (and classically), Disney produced a lot of fantasy movies like Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Aladdin (1992), just to name a few. What they have in common is that they are all set in "a far far away land", with a bunch of magic elements, like the fairy godmother in Cinderella and Genie in Aladdin. These seemly impossible and purely imagined magic become the most significant feature of these kind of fantasy movies.

All the classic Disney movies. Source: Google Pictures.

However, the movies Disney has been producing in recent years, such as Wreck-it Ralph (2012), Big Hero 6 (2014), and Zootopia (2016), are gradually moving from that far far away land towards sometime in the future. These movies often feature a lot of advanced technology as its background, but the plots of these movies are still pretty similar to those of classic movies. So we call them "science fantasy."

Let's take a look at Aladdin and Big Hero 6.

Genie vs. Baymax.

Although the two stories take place in completely different time and space, the two plots follow a similar pattern: Baymax is just a high-tech version of Genie.

Big Hero 6 is set in an imaginary future metropolis called San Fransokyo. It features the story that a young Japanese scientist Hiro Hamada and a respected professor Callaghan both seeking revenge for their beloved ones.

Aladdin is, on the other hand, set in in the fictional sultanate of Agrabah, a long time ago. It features the story of how a young boy called Aladdin fell in love with Princess Jasmine and prevented Jafar, the Grand Vizier of the Sultan from getting the ultimate power, with the help of the Genie from a magical lamp.

Both movies feature a young male character as a“hero”, Hiro in Big Hero 6 and Aladdin in Aladdin. And both heroes encounter the mission of defeating a villain, Professor Callaghan and Jafar respectively. And all four main characters have some kind of “power” with them: Hiro has Baymax, Aladdin has the Genie, Professor Callaghan uses microbots and Jafar uses magic. Baymax, as a health care robot, has the defaulted function of ensuring the user’s physical and mental well-being, while Genie is set to fulfill the user’s three wishes, and as a result, they both accompany and help the “hero” on his journey.

Based on these many similarities, Andrea Fătu-Tutoveanu defined "science fantasy" as a hybrid genre that

merges the logical consistency, predictability and comprehensibility specific to science fiction with the conventional acceptance of fantastic elements.

Big Hero 6 is a representative science fantasy. It has a lot of fancy technology’s presence, including the microbots, tiny magnetic robots invented by Hiro but exploited by Professor Callaghan, which are able to assemble and install, Baymax, a health care robot, and the powerful combat equipment of Hiro’s friends. But at the same time, it still follows a traditional fantasy plot of justice over evilness.

Big Hero 6 mixes elements from science fiction and fantasy. Source: Google Pictures.

But there are definitely more differences than similarities between science fantasy and traditional fantasy.

Firstly, a good one: science fantasy tends to rely less on stereotypes when it comes to building characters. Megan Logan criticizes Aladdin because of the exaggerated gender traits of Jafar that “don’t fall into the narrow expectations of the performance expected from their respective genders.” While apparently, there is no such problem in Big Hero 6, in which Professor Callaghan is just an ordinary person we even expect to encounter in our daily life. Samantha Sullivan also speaks highly of Big Hero 6's representation.

Jafar has very feminine traits. Source: Google Pictures.

However, not all changes that science fantasy brings about are praiseworthy.

Science fantasy fails to pay attention to characters’ inner struggle and change. Extremely speaking, there is no portrayal of emotional change, only of dramatized technology. Jafar and Professor Callaghan are both characterized as powerful yet villainy. Jafar can enchant the Sultan into always listening to him and satisfying his demand, and Professor Callaghan's microbots are omnipotent.

But in Aladdin, we saw Jafar's ferocious facial expression when he was trying to enchant the Sultan, his ecstasy and exaggerated body movements when he finally got the magic lamp and made his wishes come true, and his inner process evolving from simply avoiding Princess Jasmine to marry a prince to trying to marry Jasmine himself and finally to directly seizing the position of Sultan were all delicately depicted.

What about Big Hero 6? Nothing. Only some fancy scenes of Professor Callaghan using the microbots to attack Hiro and his friends. To make things worse, most of the time, Professor Callaghan’s face is even hidden behind the mask!

That's what Professor Callaghan looks like for the most part of the movie. Source: Villain's Wikia

No matter how the audience may be excited by these scenes, the fact is unchanged that technology, after all, is only a tool, and detailed showcase of this tool can never replace an emotionally touching story of why people choose to use this tool and how they use them.

Even worse, there are additional problems newly brought up when the technology elements are added: future world is not necessarily a safe place.

Future is not always as wonderful as we hope or as Disney says.

In “Disney in Science Fiction Land”, Jay Telotte criticizes that discussion and depiction of “tomorrow” are gradually transformed into little more than an entertaining “fantasy”. Disney is making more and more "Tomorrowlands", but are these actually a good representation of the image of future? When the destroy and reconstruction of the campus of the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology all take place in a few seconds, easily achieved by the technology that the protagonists own, we assume that tomorrow is a safe place, and we will still be the one in charge.

But oftentimes, this is not the case.

Disney has always been progressive in terms of science fiction.

From the very beginning, we acknowledge that one of the key differences between science fantasy and traditional fantasy is that the former sets the story in the future, while the latter puts the story in sometime in the past. Exactly because science fantasy tells stories which may actually happen in the future, the filmmakers should be aware that how they depict the future will actually result in a reshape, or sometimes even misshape of the image of future in the audience’s eyes.

Disney is influential, and thus it more needs to pay attention to how it depicts the future and what kind of impression its products will leave on children. True, some people find the racial issues in Big Hero 6 a right way to do so, it's also important to keep in mind that casually inserting sci-fi elements to a fantasy plot without any modification will lead to an overly optimistic or progressive attitude towards future.

And in this case, science just won't work.

Created By
Yutao Gong
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