“Up” and the missing Pixar ingredient
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.
Maybe 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.