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Like a blow-up Buster Keaton

“Big Hero 6”, and its debt to silent movies

Tom Shone | January 30th 2015

If Apple ever got its hands on Florence Nightingale it might end up with something like Baymax, the big, inflatable white blob at the centre of the new Disney animation “Big Hero 6”. Baymax is a robot caregiver who asks people, “On a scale of one to ten, how much does it hurt?” in a soothing, slightly effeminate voice like that of HAL from “2001” (in actuality Scott Adsit from “30 Rock”), and who dispenses hugs that envelop you like a duvet. “It’s like spooning a marshmallow,” says one of the teen heroes of the tale, although adult viewers may find older memories prodded by Baymax’s air of roly-poly befuddlement. When his batteries are low, he lollops drunkenly across the screen like Chaplin on the deck of a rocking boat in “The Immigrant”, and when he gets stuck crawling through a window—that old fat-man routine—he extricates himself by partially deflating himself with a gnat-like “peeooowwww” sound while maintaining a straight face that would be the envy of Buster Keaton. But then deadpan has always been the secret weapon of animators: keeping a straight face is so much easier when you’re nothing but a straight line to begin with.  

One of the best reasons to watch kids’ cartoons is to brush up on your physical comedy. You used to be able to tell Chuck Jones and Tex Avery cartoons apart by whether they focused on the character’s face after it was blackened by an exploding bomb or in the last few ticking seconds before. The best of today’s kids’ movies play like silents, from the Chaplinesque pleasures of Pixar’s “WALL-E”, to the first ten, almost completely wordless minutes of “UP”. (Sometimes you feel all they do at Pixar is watch old silent shorts.) “Big Hero 6” doesn’t match the grace of those films, but it’ll do for now with its bright, anime-inspired palette and its architectural mash-up of San Fransisco and Tokyo (tram cars, elevated railway tracks, Victorian Mission duplexes, cherry blossoms). Cynics may detect traces of demographic calculation in the portmanteau city of San Fransokyo, although I sensed as much of a tribute to the tech-industry ingenuity that is both the film’s touchstone and, ultimately, undoing.

Our hero, Hiro, is a robotics whiz who is forced to team up with a group of his fellow nerds at a super-advanced tech college—“nerd school”—when his invention falls into the wrong hands. Rather disappointingly this entails they all kit themselves out as superheroes to do battle with a kabuki-masked super-villain who has built one of those inter-dimensional portals that threatens to suck every film into its maw, from “Transformers” to “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”. How did movies with as divergent a starting point as inflatable robot-caregivers and raining hot-dogs end up with the exact same ending? “I fail to see how karate makes me a better healthcare companion,” objects Baymax in his soothing, reasonable tones, as Hiro straps him into red Iron Man armour with rocket launchers for fists, and I have to say I was with him on this. It’s boring enough when the protagonists of superhero movies transform into superheroes, but must everyone else now too?

A fleeting cameo from a cartoon Stan Lee, the man behind Marvel, confirms your suspicions: “Big Hero 6” began life as a Marvel comic before Disney animators were tasked with the job of devising an origins story. In a sense they’ve done their job too well: the warm-up outshines the main act. In Japan, the movie’s title is simply “Baymax”. Those charmed by the tech-industry ingenuity of the first half may find themselves sulky with resentment at being shunted into yet another corner of the Marvel universe and gleaning what comfort, and comedy, they can from Baymax’s befuddled resistance. Strapping all that armour onto him is like trying to dress jelly, and his most touching response to moments of high drama is to spring a leak—the comedy of deflation in a movie, and a genre, otherwise committed to rampant inflation. “Will apprehending the man in the mask improve your emotional state?” he asks Hiro innocently. “Would that stabilise your pubescent mood swings?” I very much doubt it, but one can but try.

Big Hero 6 Out now in Britain and America 

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