When I was in high school, PBS ran a miniseries that was an interview between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell called “The Power of Myth.” Campbell had spent his career in academia studying and dissecting the myths of different eras and ages. His argument after all those years of study was that humanity essentially had been telling the same story over and over again through our myths, especially when it comes to heroes.
Campbell’s work by the same name does an excellent job of presenting his case that all stories (“myths”) are built on the same basic structure, and that those elements are used in most storytelling. He made his arguments all the way back in a 1949 book named “A Hero with 1000 Faces.” As I read this work later in my academic career (my undergraduate degree is in English), I was fascinated with the way he broke down the stories into pieces that re-appear over and over again.
To watch him go back and apply the same principles to more modern stories was incredibly engaging. (His breakdown of Luke Skywalker was a thing of beauty to behold.)
The Power of Story
All of which is to say that, at my deepest core, my nerdom stems out of my love of story, in all of its glorious and many forms. I love the Chris Claremont X-Men comic books because he was able to tell amazing stories. I love the graphic novel “I Kill Giants” because it tells a beautiful story about loss, grief and denial. And just as much, I love the story of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time series of young adult books. I love the cinematic story of the film Children of Men. My list could go on and on. (As you can tell, I have excellent taste. *ahem*)
But the intriguing thing to me is that all of those stories, while different and unique in many ways, also have the deep DNA of Campbell’s hero’s journey. Which isn’t to say that all the stories that have that DNA are good. I imagine there are many a writer who read Campbell’s book, sat down to map out their own version and ended up with a less than compelling work. There are bad versions and examples of it.
What About Big Hero 6?
I want to lift up for your consideration the recently released Disney animated film “Big Hero 6. While I knew that this film was superhero-ish and that Disney and Marvel had some comics involving the characters either coming out or already published, I didn’t know much else.
I have to say that it is an excellent example of the heroes journey that is also rich, compelling storytelling. It follows the story of the genius Hiro, a 13 year old with an aptitude for mechanical engineering and robotics in particular. His older brother is pushing him to become a part of his high tech school and then things happen that push Hiro on his journey. In a short hour and half film, there is a solid, tight, interesting and moving story.
I also think this piece is especially a great film for children. One of the things that you can’t say about the current crop of superhero films is that they are made for kids. Avengers is dark, scary at time. Guardians of the Galaxy has some wildly kid inappropriate sexual innuendo. When I think of my two nieces, I am not sure that they are ready to see them, and certainly not my little nephew.
But I want them to love superheros. I want them to see a world that has magical journey, adventure and ultimately is about character in the heart of (wo)man and not the powers they have.
Big Hero 6 is a great superhero movie for them; and while it is a children’s animated film, it is also a smart, interesting and telling story of a hero on a journey of change and transformation. If Joseph Campbell were still with us, he would be singing its praises on the imaginary podcast he and I did about great stories.
(If you are interested in learning more about Joseph Campbell, the Hero’s Journey and the Power of Myth, this link is a great place to start.)