Tag Archives: Up

The Pixar version

Anton Ego

A few days ago I watched Ratatouille again, both for the splendor of its animation — I love the riot of textures and metallic surfaces in the kitchen — and the generosity of its finale, in which the heroes triumph over the sepulchral food critic Anton Ego. I was also nudged by Patton Oswalt’s hilarious new record, My Weakness Is Strong, which includes a few routines about his voice work on the film, in which he played Remy the rodent hero.

But the finale written by Brad Bird — who, after The Iron Giant and The Incredibles rates second only to Hayao Miyazaki in my book of great animators — is what always brings me back to Ratatouille. Any other animation shop would have devised a slapstick comeuppance for the critic and called it a day. In Ratatouille, Remy and his friends win him over by bringing him back to himself, and the story gives Ego not only that deeply touching flashback to his childhood, but the space to offer the film’s best line:  “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” A clip is at the bottom of this post. Consider the Spanish subtitles an educational plus.

After I saw Up — which is, despite my reservations about its second half, further proof that Pixar is the unchallenged standard-bearer for animated storytelling — I thought back to the recent corporate battle between John Lasseter’s shop and Disney, the corporate parent Pixar has creatively eclipsed.

Has there ever been a more crushing confession of failure than Disney’s threat, implicit in the renegotiation of its distribution deal with Pixar, to rush ahead with a second Toy Story sequel if Pixar went with another company? Disney was frankly admitting that its movies stink, its formulas are played out and its fund of creativity exhausted — and threatening to apply all those liabilities to Pixar’s most treasured property. “Work with us, or you’ll see just how badly we can suck.” Some negotiating tactic!

Reviewing the film in The New Yorker,  David Denby makes some cogent points about the distinction between Pixar films and Disney:

Yes, there was the classic Disney group of animated features, released between 1937 and 1942, which included “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Pinocchio,” “Bambi,” and “Dumbo.” Children still love them, though this aging child doesn’t, really. The old Disney dispensation went roughly as follows: The material was largely based on fairy tales, with princes and queens and wicked stepmothers. Animals with long eyelashes engaged in gentle woodland conversation. There was much anthropomorphic charm, much sweet melodiousness, and, running through the sugar, a vinegary taste of fear, separation, punishment. The entire Bruno Bettelheim catalogue of psychological terrors churned below the surface. By now (for me, at least), the cloyingness, with its malevolent undertones, seems too calculated and heavy-spirited. But the recent Pixar films are something else. These movies are fashioned as much for adults as for kids. Set in the modern world, they are built around an exhilarating drive for achievement. A family of libertarian superheroes refuses to accept enforced mediocrity (“The Incredibles”). A talented rat wants to practice the art of cooking (“Ratatouille”). A robot saves the aesthetic remnants of a civilization ruined by excess and pollution (“WALL-E”). Some of the characters are isolated; they are all intelligent and strongly motivated. We’ve gone from psychological fable to moral fable, from fate to something like self-willed, even civic, passion.

There is much to like and dislike in the Disney catalogue, but my biggest beef with those canonical works — many of which I otherwise admire — was to give multiple generations of viewers the false idea that they actually know the story of Pinocchio, or the Little Mermaid, or Cinderella. You could argue that the original versions of those tales would be unpalatable to contemporary audience, and you might even be right. But the Disney operation’s habit of processing folk tales and forgotten classics into contemporary Cheez Whiz has been a problem for a lot of people, starting with Richard Schickel (whose 1968 book The Disney Version was the first serious attempt to examine the workings of Uncle Walt’s dream factory), and it played a big role in the company’s creative stagnation.

Right from the start, Pixar movies have turned their backs on stale fake-folktale plots and used contemporary materials with great freshness and ingenuity. Along with that “drive for achievement” Denby notes, Pixar movies also have a much broader emotional palette, including a readiness to weave adult fears and emotions into their kid-friendly storylines. The best line in the original Toy Story — “This isn’t flying, it’s falling with style!” — was taken even further in Toy Story 2, which quite explicitly addresses fears of mortality and the decision to make the most of your time regardless of what’s ahead. Apparently next year’s Toy Story 3 will continue that line of development, and I’m eager to see where they go with it.

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The flight path not taken

UUp

It’s been apparent for a while now that Pixar operates in its own artistic sphere, so when I call its latest feature, Up, a bit of a letdown, bear in mind that I’m comparing it with previous in-house masterpieces like The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Toy Story 2. The trailers preceding the show were for computer-animated films that promise little beyond one or two gimmicks and some predictable gags. My problem with Up is that for roughly its first third, the film delivers something genuinely, movingly unique, then lurches off in a commercially safer direction closer to those unambitious, gag-laden movies that want nothing more than to move toys and Happy Meals. That’s not to say Up is a bad flick — even at its weakest, there’s plenty of imagination and wit on display — but it is one that leaves you wondering what might have been. 

Just as last summer’s Pixar epic, Wall-E, conveyed some pretty sophisticated science fictional ideas through purely visual means, so does Up use its beautiful cinematic palette to paint the love story of Ellie and Carl, Depression-era dreamers brought together by their vicarious longing for adventure and their admiration of a Lowell Thomas-style explorer named Charles Muntz. We then get images, in quick succession, showing their marriage, the thwarting of their hopes for parenthood, the little accidents that keep them homebound and unadventurous, the passage of years and finally, Ellie’s death and Carl’s descent into sour, dyspeptic old age, their lovingly refurbished house surrounded and overshadowed by looming condos and noisy construction work. It’s beautiful, heartbreaking stuff: imagery as pure and emotionally direct as anything out of Cocteau. And when Carl, cornered by circumstances, decides to break out by lofting his house with thousands of candy-colored balloons, it is a breathtaking moment — pure, childlike fantasy rooted in hard, adult emotions. Show me another animated film that not only has such ambitions, but achieves them with such artistry.

And then Up loses steam — gradually, because that first third has built up so much wonder and good will, but palpably as Carl floats his house all the way to South America in the company of Russell, an eager beaver scout determined to land his “assisting the elderly” merit badge. The long dreamt-of meeting with Charles Muntz goes drastically wrong, and suddenly Up becomes a grab-bag of ideas and gags. Talking dogs! Wacky looking animals! Aerial duels! The noisier and more elaborate Up gets, the farther it drifts from the sources of its charm.

Pixar leader John Lasseter is a self-proclaimed fan of Japanese animation genius Hayao Miyazaki, and he’s taken on the mission of marketing Miyazaki’s work in the U.S. I think Up would have benefitted from a closer study of Miyazaki’s storytelling. One of the qualities I appreciate the most in Miyazaki’s films is the absence of bogus conflict to keep plot gears turning. The storylines in Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro surprise and engage us without an eeeeee-vil villain who’s trying to take over the world, but when Miyazaki does stoke up conflict, as in Princess Mononoke, he makes sure the motivations are clear, so the clashes seem genuinely tragic. Yubaba, the witch in Spirited Away, is a hugely threatening villain because her malignity follows rules that are consistent but not immediately apparent, and the heroine has very little time to figure them out.

So when Muntz, the idealized image of adventure that sustains Carl’s dream, abruptly turns into a violent psycho, the switch feels forced and unbelievable — spurred solely by the need for a conventional action-movie climax. It is as though the Pixar crew toted up its original touches — grumpy geezer as hero, no conventionally attractive charatcers — and decided to cut off the supply of originality halfway through the picture. In other words, a cop-out.

Too bad. If Up had followed through on the originality and artistic daring of its opening scenes, we would be talking about something truly groundbreaking — a milestone in animation and film art. Instead, we’re left wondering about the road not taken. Or, in this case, the flight path not taken.

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