Excelsior!

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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.

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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.

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(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.

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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.

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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.

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31 Responses to “Excelsior!”

  1. Loved, loved, loved this film. The younger Carl kind of reminded me of a bespectacled James Whitmore.

  2. An amazing film. But one thing I don’t think has yet been remarked on are Carl’s glasses. Just as the neon cup-holding coccoons in WALL-E must be based on the multiplex seats from which the film would be viewed, effectively casting the audience as the flabby humans, so here I realized as Carl pored over his wife’s filled scrapbook the audience attending UP in 3D are ALL DRESSED AS CARL. Those are IMAX frames. It’s genius.

  3. One of the most remarkable things about the film (and one that I like about it) is that it is basically a mainstream film starring an old man and a fat kid: Yes, there can be life, and box-office success, beyond Brangelina and other such hideous monsters

    And, hum… Need I say that I loved the cinephile reference when Carl uses the stair elevator?

  4. Can’t say that I like any of this “new” 3-D animation.

  5. THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR PARNASSUS is quite lovely.

  6. I think the animated films are the most likely way that 3D will catch on, because they’re so popular, whatever you think of them. As for the loik, I understand why some people prefer traditional handcrafted methods, but if you get enmeshed in the story that ceases to matter so much. And I think the visual storytelling at Pixar is superb: the future of classical film narration.

    The idea of using an old man is terrific, and shows Pixar flexing their muscles — everything they do is absurdly successful, so they’re duty-bound to take a few risks and move the medium on. Arguably making Carl an action hero in part two slightly cheats on the concept… but we don’t mind.

    Looking forward to Parnassus, and not put off by a few bad reviews. Gilliam’s best films often attract bad reviews.

  7. I like the Pixar films fine enough…although I must say I find individual scenes more interesting a lot of the times than the whole product. Like in TOY STORY 2, the scene where the guy fixes up Tom Hanks’ arm was fascinatingly done, showing in meticulous detail how a toy is painstakingly repaired and restored. Lavishing it the same care as art restorers or film restoration.

    My favourite is RATATOUILLE, which is like a portrait of the artist as a young rat.

  8. And of coure there’s a nice Proust hommage when the Peter O’Toole character in the climactic scene tastes the titular dish and is involuntarily sent into the kitchen of his mother when he was a young boy. Also nice is that he’s built up as a villain but in the last moment he gets a moment to shine.

  9. Yes, that’s always pleasing. He’s really a disappointed hero. Brad Bird is a particularly smart guy, as The Iron Giant shows (still the best non-Pixar US animated feature of recent years). He probably had the best take on human characters as well, after the rather awkward figures of the first Toy Story.

  10. Oh yay, I just saw this on Saturday while visiting my dad, and we both loved it. “I was hiding under the porch because I *love* you” was the line we were quoting too. Although also, “the Cone of Shame.”

  11. TOY STORY is interesting because it’s essentially DON QUIXOTE only Woody who plays Sancho to the Astronaut’s Quixote is itself an iconic cowboy figure and not a sidekick as old Sancho. Interesting as a dramatic concept. TOY STORY is essentially a take on the problems of anthromorphology. Make it too fantastic and nobody will care, make it too real and the reality of a thinking feeling toy’s life is horribly bleak. Eventually, they’ll be discarded and grounded to dust. The positive spin is that they choose being a real part of someone else’s life over being a museum piece. Must be a metaphor for art’s importance to human life.

    RATATOUILLE also gives the dreamiest romantic view of Paris since Minnelli’s 50s musicals. It’s a world of adventure, promise and about artists who take existential choices to pursue their art, away from familial and societal or in this case, biological issues. James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum also like it a lot.

  12. Ratatouille was the first Pixar film where I couldn’t see the point of the CGI. I can’t help thinking it would have been a better film if the whole thing had looked like the end credits. Parnassus is a surprisingly beautiful vehicle for Christopher Plummer.

  13. I think a big point of the CGI in Ratatouille is to make the food look tasty.

  14. Had not thought of that.

  15. Thank you, David for affirming that it’s OK to blub like a girl at Pixar films. They get me every time (Wall-E and Nemo in particular. It’s a parent thing). And thank you for mentioning the great Iron Giant and the pop culture genius that is Brad Bird.

    My favourite line; (to a pinstripe-suited developer)”Get your hair cut, hippy!”

    I know Plummer was voicing Muntz but I couldn’t help thinking it was Kirk Douglas.

  16. Apres Daffy le deluge

  17. Je me preferee, One Froggy Evening…

    …Steven Spielberg thinks it’s the most perfect cartoon of all…

    I concur…

    But DUCK AMUCK is pretty damn great. The closest cinema has come to Alfred Jarry…

  18. Thanks for mentioning David and Kristin’s continuing appreciation of new animation. I remember meeting David long ago during the famous Film Society wars that occurred in Madison, Wisconsin (David and Kristin’s home) during the late 60’s and 70’s when the city was overrun with dozens of competing nightly screenings. The war began when the society’s began hiring goons to tear down each others street posters (at the time, the city was wall to wall with posters promoting way too many upcoming films…for me, it was heaven). This all lead to escalating instances of projector sabotage and mysteriously convenient power outages. Wonderful days in one of the great cinema towns on this planet.

  19. Wisconsin sounds more and more exciting! Herzog made it seem such a scary place, too.

    Chuck Jones’s Feed The Kitty seems to be the big favourite at Pixar. A sequence in Monsters Inc steals from the cookie preparation scene, and the new short shown with Up, Partly Cloudy, steals a line reading from the dog in Jones’ mini-masterpiece. (The line: “Ah-ah-AH!” may seem generic, but the delivery is unmistakable.

  20. The Film Society Wars sounds like a teriffic project for Joe Dante.

    Who’ll play Wheeler Winston Dixon?

  21. I LOVE Feed the Kitty, brings a smile to my face just thinking about it. And I have a soft spot for Duck Amuck as well, but Porky Pig’s outfit in the Duck Dodgers ‘toon also tickles me, too cute, as well as his performance as the wiser of the two in that partnership.

  22. The Film Society Wars reminds me of the patent wars in the early days of American film. Piracy, gangsterism and movie makers shooting holes in each others’ cameras!

    Love Marvin the Martian.

  23. James Franco as Wheeler Winston Dixon.

  24. I ADORE the narrative that Chuck Jones managed to weave from Porky and Daffy’s waning popularity following the creation of Bugs. In “Dodgers” for example, Porky (Warners’ first star) now appears quietly philosophical about being reduced to bit parts in cheap melodrama while Daffy, still clearly smarting, seizes every possible opportunity to be rediscovered as a star with both quavering hands. Jones’ greatest work for me is this creation not merely of recognizable characters, but characters recognizable as performers, and whenever I consider the fact that these – some of the greatest comic performances ever recorded – never in any real sense even existed I do have to go and lie down (Mel Blanc’s contribution of course was crucial but not the be all and end all).

    Oh and let me link to this, for all neophobes. Another heartbreaking ten minutes of CGI, but with very different influences, if any:

  25. A glorious film, and I was thinking the same thing you say above, David, about how Up! and the like are the closest thing we have now to Golden Age of Hollywood storytelling values.

    If you haven’t seen it, try Happy Feet – George Miller seems to have found the perfect midpoint between Babe: Pig in the City’s nightmare and the average Hollywood hero’s journey, and there are shots in HF that are breathtakingly beautiful, as well as a soundtrack that never gets boring (and I should know, my 2-year-old has watched it nearly every day for a month now).

    Her first* cinema trip is coming up soon – The Fantastic Mr Fox, we think, a good choice for a junior cineaste.

    * second really, she came with us to see On the Town in Paris when she was about three months old, and seemed to enjoy every minute.

  26. I saw bits of Happy Feet on a flight one time, and couldn’t bring myself to like it, somehow. My response to CGI is very variable, and I do sympathise with those who miss the human touch. I just didn’t feel HF was well enough designed to work for me visually.

  27. Maybe I have Stockholm Syndrome.

  28. Or Stendahl Syndrome? That would be a scary condition to have while watching a cartoon.

  29. Wheeler Winston Dixon Says:

    James Franco? Sounds good to me.

  30. The Film Society Wars might be a hard project to finance, if Dante’s proposed movie about The Trip is anything to go by. But it might make a winning documentary! Over to you, Mr Anderson.

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