Finding Pixar: A Skeptic’s Journey- Up (2009)

This is the tenth part of an eleven part series in which I chronologically explore the films of the Pixar Animation studio for the first time in my life while also exploring the studio’s history and what it was that kept me disinterested in it all these years.

One of the things that first launched my interest in finer cinema was the T.V. special “AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Thrills,” part of the once annual series of top 100 lists that the American Film Institute put out over the last decade.  I was intrigued by the many clips and began trying to systematically watch every film on the list.  By the time I was done I was a fully fledged film buff and I didn’t stop there.   I moved on to AFI’s original top 100 list, and once I was done with that I began watching all the films that won the Oscar for Best Picture.  From there I embarked on the difficult task of trying to watch every movie that ever been nominated for Best Picture.  Of course that’s a huge undertaking that I’ll probably never finish, but I have succeeded is seeing every Best Picture nominee since 1969 (with the exception of 1972’s The Emigrants which has never been available on DVD).

That accomplishment stood until 2009 when two movies came out that would break this accomplishment.  One of them was The Blind Side, a football drama that looked incredibly corny and borderline racist.  Distasteful as that movie looked, I probably would have held my nose and watched it in order to maintain my Oscar-watching dominance, but I never bothered because I’d still have one more nominee to watch from that year: Pixar’s Up. Yes that’s right, after a decade of critical whining and complaining the Academy had finally given in and nominated a Pixar film for Best Picture.  Of course this probably only came to pass because of a rule change expanding the number of nominees from five to ten, which more or less made the accomplishment meaningless, but the fact remained that there was a post-1970 Best Picture nominee on the books which I hadn’t seen and that ate at me.  In fact it was around the time of that nomination that I first began plotting out this marathon/essay series.

The initial release of Up was a definite down point in my interest in Pixar.  While WALL-E had almost looked interesting enough to make me break down and start going to Pixar movies, what I saw of Up looked more or less like a typical animated kids movie.  That alone wouldn’t have been so bad, but the Pixar fans of the world seemed to praise it just as highly as they did WALL-E just the year before and that reeked of fanboyism to me.  It began to sound like Pixar could put out anything and it would still be proclaimed “the best Pixar movie yet” by the studio’s fans.  Furthermore the hyperbole put into question the sincerity of the praise that had come before, I began to wonder if the studio’s fans had been crying wolf this whole time and it just made it kind of easy to be dismissive.

The consensus back in 2009 seemed to be that Up was at its strongest during its opening moments, where the audience is witness to a condensed version of the protagonist’s life thus far.  I can’t express just how much this sequence had been hyped up, pretty much everything that’s been written about the film brings it up, sometimes ignoring everything else in the film in order to focus on it.  After finally seeing the scene I can’t help but feel a little bit let down.  For one thing I found the opening few minutes in which Carl and Ellie meet as children to be rather grating, specifically Ellie’s dialogue and general look with wild hair and missing teeth.  It looked weird, but the next ten minutes or so were indeed pretty good, but not exactly great.  I mean, it’s a just a montage people, a montage.  That’s not exactly a new or unique filmmaking tool and this particular montage isn’t that much better executed than similar scenes we’ve seen before.  There was a similar montage set to The Beatles “Twist and Shout” the year before in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button which didn’t garner nearly the accolades or press as the opening ten minutes of Up.

Of course a major component of that opening scene was Michael Giacchino’s Oscar winning score, which lived up to its hype much more successfully than that opening did.  The score was based around a pleasant whimsical theme which is repeated throughout the film in a variety of appropriate variations.  It’s such a good score that I’m pretty sure it’s been reused in a number of places, I could swear I’d heard it before in some other context.  The rest of the film’s aesthetics are also quite strong for the most part.  While the film never buckles the audience over with its realism the way that certain sequences in Wall-E did, there were elements that were quite impressive just the same.  The landscapes of Paradise Falls were appropriately beautiful, the balloon house is a very well rendered visual and the weather effects are especially impressive.  However, Pixar continues to be downright cowardly in their willingness to tackle the uncanny valley and consequently the models for human characters have actively devolved over the course of these last three films.  This was somewhat apparent in WALL-E but was easy to overlook as the result of the deformed nature of those human characters, but here there’s no denying that Pixar’s humans have increasingly exaggerated features and increasingly plasticy skin tones and this stands out when everything else in the films are looking relatively realistic.

Of course it might have been more than a little deliberate that these character models are cartoony, because the rest of the movie is like that as well.  That’s the major thing that differentiates this film from Ratatouille and WALL-E: while those films aspired to be as close to live action as possible while Up seems to be much more comfortable embracing its inner cartoon.  I’m not talking about the really fanciful things here like the flying house; I’m talking about elements of tone and a certain sense of humor.  For example, there’s a running gag in the film where the giant bird swallows the old man’s cane leaving a horizontal bulge in its long neck before it regurgitates the object.  That’s a scene that would have been completely out of place in WALL-E or Ratatouille, which were both movies that you could almost picture having been made as live action films with CGI elements, the same cannot be said about Up which straight up wouldn’t have ever worked as a live action film.

At its heart this is an adventure film, plain and simple.  The stuff about Carl’s wife provides a decent MacGuffin but it’s not overly deep and you sort of get the point (he needs to let go and move on) pretty early in the film.  As an adventure the film works fairly well although I guess I was expecting a little more.  The prospect of there being a creature near Paradise Falls had led me to expect the illest island this side of Skull Island but instead what we got was a generic jungle, a bird, and a bunch of moderately mean looking attack dogs.  If they were going to place all their chips on high adventure I guess I was expecting something a little bit more epic and creative.  Granted there are at least two decent set pieces, including a chase scene which likely would have earned a Golden Stake if I’d seen the film in 2009, but is that really enough… not really.  As far as cartoon action movies go I’d say The Incredibles worked a lot better and so did Wall-E to some extent.

It doesn’t help that the movie’s final third is predicated on the notion that saving a dopey looking bird from having to live as a zoo animal is worth risking your life over.  Seriously, a big part of what makes action scenes work are the stakes involved and if the only consequence of Carl and Russell failing their mission is that an overgrown toucan lives a less than wonderful life (and probably doesn’t even get killed) your movie is in trouble.  Speaking of which, most of the supporting characters in this movie are kind of annoying including the dog, the bird, and the little kid.  Granted, this is at least partly deliberate.  Carl is sort of a W.C. Fields character, he just wants to be left alone but he gets berated on all sides by animals and children and his reaction to them is meant to be humorous.  Still, that doesn’t change the fact we as an audience have to deal with these things as well and that is not very fun.  Don’t get me wrong, none of these characters reach Flic, Dorie, or Mater levels of annoyingness, but they certainly didn’t appeal to me.

All of this doesn’t mean that Up is a bad movie by any means, it’s certainly a moderately fun animated movie and if Pixar had released it sometime around 2003 or 2004 it may well have been their best movie to date.  However, by 2009 I feel like Pixar had raised the bar significantly and this doesn’t necessarily match up.  Of course that’s all a matter of taste; I can see why a throwback like this would appeal to Pixar’s long time fans who like them when they’re being cartoony, but that’s not me.

The Short Program: Partly Cloudy

If nothing else Partly Cloudy, the short that preceded Up, gets a lot of credit for ambition.  While the last Pixar short felt content to simply give us a moderately clever slapstick scenario, this one establishes an entire system that’s seemingly in place to govern the creation of everything on earth.  The short is set in a world where the myth that all children are delivered to their parents by storks (you know, as opposed to boning) and takes it a step further by explaining where the storks got all these babies in the first place.  As it turns out they got them from anthropomorphized clouds with faces and arms who are apparently able to conjure life into existence through… magic.

This elaborate concept is the backdrop but the short is more specifically a (surprise) slapstick piece focusing on a misfit stork and a misfit cloud (what is it with this studio and lovable misfits).  The cloud in question is a dark storm cloud who makes dangerous baby animals like alligators and porcupines rather cute baby animals like puppies or kittens and the stork in question spends the movie getting hurt by most of these creatures but he just keeps on delivering them because he’s a real trooper.

The world that the short sets up is certainly creative and it reminded me a little of Monsters, Inc. in its attempt to create an industrial scenario for a childhood fantasy.  The execution is also as polished as ever with the cloud people being rendered really well through animation and the landscape below looking really sharp as well.  However, I really feel like Pixar can and should be doing more with these shorts than making simple “rule of threes” slapstick pieces.  There seems to be a standard formula running through most of the shorts at this point and it’s getting a little old.  Admittedly this formula might have been less apparent to me if I’d seen the films over the course of ten years rather ten months, but I see it none the less and I’m beginning to feel less charitable about it.  Overall I can’t fault this short too much because it’s good at what it’s trying to be, but I’m not going to praise it too much either.

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