[Five Deadly Everythings]

“Up” and the missing Pixar ingredient

Posted in animation, break it down, movies by Jef on June 3, 2009


I saw Up on opening night but hadn’t gotten around to thinking about it until now, hence the late review. That delay got me thinking though — why hadn’t I thought at all about a movie I was so impressed with as I walked out of the theatre?

It’s a problem I have with all of Pixar’s pictures. All of them good, many of them great, and every single one of them inconsequential and forgettable. I remember liking Toy Story and The Incredibles very much, but I can’t summarize their stories for you. I remember specific things that impressed me about Ratatouille and Wall-E but they’re all minor details. Unlike with other films that I’d rate similarly high, I can’t describe in detail a sequence or image from any Pixar movie. Not one scene is carved into my memory.

I feel an obligation to reiterate my agreement that Pixar is a house of great filmmakers. They tell original stories in cinematic ways that go beyond being “just cartoons.” I can’t fault them, but I can forget them. I remember more about their themes than I do about their plots or characters.

There are two great moments in Up, both incredibly sad. One comes at the end of the much lauded opening montage which summarizes Carl and Elie’s marriage, the other when Russell shares a memory of his absent father. Both are fantastic examples of great screenwriting, showing instead of telling, revealing more about a character through what is omitted rather than what is said. But I remember being more impressed with the technique of those moments, their execution, rather than the actual emotional impact they had.

evil stepmotherMaybe that’s it, however nitpicky. Maybe the screenwriting on Pixar’s films is just too tight, to the point where there’s not much more. The beats unfold with musical precision, every note is pitch perfect. Ed empties his floating house of personal possessions when the audience finally gets tired of his baggage. It’s great character development, but the characters themselves, their designs, their voices and tics, don’t stick with me, and I stop caring about them after the lights come on.

I could just be pining for my own childhood’s version of a good cartoon movie, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Pixar hasn’t come close to dreaming up anything nearly as memorable as a Cruella De Ville, an evil stepmother or even an uncle Scar. Maybe it’s the villains — something (along with the songs) that Pixar never picked up in its transition from Disney land. After all, the appeal of children’s films always rests more on the villains than on the heroes. It’s the heroes that keep the monsters at bay, but it’s the monsters that keep us glued to our seats.

I don’t remember who the villains were in Toy Story. Wall-E had a lesson to teach about humanity but I can’t remember how it got there. I think the bad-guy in Ratatouille was a food critic, or a chef with a knife who didn’t like rats in his kitchen. In Up, when the villain meets his demise it’s a moment of very minor relief. It’s of course appropriate and pat (he falls off the symbol of his own stature), but it carries no weight.

In Pixar’s films, the heroes mainly struggle against themselves, their insecurities or, as Brad Bird would have it, their mediocre station in life. Which is solid storytelling, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t just want strong character arcs and the sunny wonders of Pixar’s imaginary landscapes — I want impossible stakes and a flirtation with darkness. Maybe that’s why Pixar flicks don’t need the song and dance — there’s nothing to dress up. The characters are in peril but we, the audience, are always safe and sound.

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2 Responses

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  1. debra said, on June 3, 2009 at 1:10 am

    Interesting post I enjoyed your view.
    Up was one of two films I viewed today, the other Valentino The Last Emperor. Until I read your post I already had forgotten that I saw Up. I did think it was clever and wow I was surprised of the 2 sad scenes in the film. The first made me sad and with animation I usually do not respond that way. After all it is just a “cartoon”. I am not sure if it was just not good enough for what we expect from Pixar film or if is because I was more interested in getting over to the Valentino film. But another day from now and the Pixar film will be out of my mind. However the Valentino film is still on my mind and I am still reflecting about it and I viewed it over 6 hours ago. I also know come tomorrow I will encourage all I encounter to go see Valentino and I would imagine I will have little to say about Up.

  2. jeflee said, on June 3, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    Thanks Debra. That’s the same feeling I’m talking about — being really impressed with the films but then easily forgetting them. I too also never find myself recommending Pixar flicks to other people, thanks for pointing that out.

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