UP is a blast. One of the pleasing things about David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s excellent blog is their enthusiasm for animation, which often gets overlooked by cinephiles, even those who enjoy it. We are living in a somewhat corporate, imaginatively stunted, morally vacant and narratively challenged era of Hollywood cinema, it often seems, but a genuine Golden Age of animated features, with Pixar at the forefront. I think Dreamworks and the other studios are only just beginning to make good animated films, but John Lassiter and his cohorts keep raising the bar.
You probably don’t need to be told to go and see this one, unless you’ve been missing out on a lot of the best mainstream cinema since TOY STORY. And you can read all about the film’s best ideas and sequences elsewhere, so I don’t feel the need to get into a big analysis, much as I loved the film. I’m kind of the cult-weird-obscure guy, I think, and should probably be writing about Russ Meyer’s UP! instead. But I was sufficiently moved and entertained that I do want to sing the movie’s praises just a little.
That opening montage of Carl Fredricksen’s life with Ellie has been justly praised for its visual beauty and emotional power — only Pixar movies seem to have this ability to open an entire audience’s tear ducts in three minutes from a standing start. TOY STORY II does this, supremely, in its “When She Needed Me,” song-montage. I’d been facially soaked by that one at the cinema, and so I had half an eye on Fiona when we watched it at home together. “Aw naw,” she moaned as the song started — this was going to be the boring song bit, it seemed — I looked at the screen, and when I looked back at Fiona an instant later she looked as if someone had just flung a mug of salty water in her face. It’s THAT devastating.
Of course, a lot of the impact of that song — which (1) taps into our buried nostalgic feelings about beloved childhood toys, emotion which was so strong when we were very small, and which, it seems, never really goes away; and (2) smuggles in a same-sex love theme in a way prejudiced tiny minds of parents will probably never even spot — is down to Randy Newman’s achingly sentimental song, and similarly in UP the score by Michael Giacchino is mercilessly effective, knotting our heartstrings and lumping our throats.
And the movie has just begun, we still have the fat kid, and flying to South America, and the giant bird, Kevin, and the talking dogs, best of all. Animation has been doing talking dogs for close to eighty years, but this seems like the first effort to do dogs that talk the way dogs would talk if dogs could talk. “*I* was hiding under your porch because *I* love you!” is Fiona’s favourite line, and probably mine.
(Side-note: although we own a cat, Fiona and I do like dogs. In fact, Fiona proposes that somebody needs to correct the negative impression of Siamese cats given by LADY AND THE TRAMP’s “We Are Siamese” number. Real Siamese have a doggy silliness that you never see in films. Tasha, our own puss, runs to see us when we come in, climbs up high and eagerly sniffs out heads.)
Christopher Plummer’s having a good week, what with this and THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR PARNASSUS. Here, he’s Charles Muntz, explorer, the second of the movie’s two bad-ass septo-going-on-octogenarians, Ed Asner being the first. Muntz seems to embody our modern suspicion of the great white hunter figure who inspired so many children’s fantasies of yore. Muntz is set in his imperialist ways, and his rigidity is what makes Asner’s Fredricksen finally bend. Fredricken’s mission, to uproot and then plant his house at Paradise Falls, a Conan Doyle-style Lost World, exemplifies a popular screenwriting trope, whereby the protagonist actually has the wrong goal for the first two acts.
UP follows a lot of popular Hollywood storytelling concepts, with characters mirroring each other (Dug the dog has a similar emotional need to Russell the kid) and growing (ugh) but avoids becoming mechanistic, which seems the potential downside of over-relying on screenwriting books. As my producer friend Nigel Smith put it, the makers seem to be trying to fit the free, loose, “baggy” style of story Miyazaki excels in, into an American tight structure, without disfiguring either one. They pretty much succeed.
A note on the 3D — it doesn’t seem to have been high on directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson’s list of priorities, or perhaps their goal was to make it as unobtrusive as possible. Ironic, since Roger Ebert just wrote an amusingly curmudgeonly piece about the failings of the process, how you can’t ever forget you’re watching a 3D film. In UP, I did. Doubly ironic, since although Ed Asner provides the voice for Carl Fredricksen, Roger Ebert has unquestionably furnished the face. I was expecting the movie to use 3D for vertiginous effect, but although the high-angle perspectives are spectacular, and the daredevil leaping from floating house to airship is thrilling, I never got sweaty-palmed and scared, because the action is too hectic to promote that kind of anxiety. As Harold Lloyd new well, you need to slow the pace down for that.
Other critics have questioned how Carl goes from creaky, aching old man to action hero, swinging on hosepipes like a senior Tarzan. But it is, after all, a cartoon. And a cartoon with a touching faith in the rejuvenating power of adventure. And said power is a real phenomenon, albeit one gigantically exaggerated here for dramatic effect. I was more concerned by the way little Russell gains the power to shimmy up the hosepipe, merely by being sufficiently motivated. Hollywood is big on motivation, and indeed it can be a wondrous thing. But I always resented, as a kid, movies that suggested you can do anything if prodded hard enough by necessity. Harold Lloyd again, become a football star overnight by sheer determination in THE FRESHMAN. It’s untrue. I was certainly motivated to do well at sports, because I was forced to play them and I didn’t like looking like a clown. But no matter what the motivation, I was never any good. Such motivation only causes improvement over time, with application, and there’s still a natural limit to what each of us can achieve. In between sports lessons I stayed well away from the playing field, so I never improved. Then — oh happy day! — I developed a knee complaint, and never did sport again.
So Russell’s sudden athleticism is as exaggerated as Carl’s, and possibly more misleading to young viewers, who may wonder why they can’t become athletic just by trying terribly hard. But I’m really nitpicking here — because it gets boring just to rave about something being, you know, FUN.