Saturday, May 30, 2009


(Mild spoilers below.)

I was beginning to worry that Pixar had passed its peak. Cars and Wall-E were both, in my opinion, weaker than their directors' previous films. As so many animation directors seem to do their best work early on and then repeat themselves to lesser effect, I wondered if Pete Docter would fall into the same pattern. That isn't the case. It's nice to see that Brad Bird is not the only director at Pixar who is at the top of his game.

Carl Fredricksen and Charles Muntz have both have made commitments to the past. Both are trying to do something they failed to do in their youth. Muntz is trying to prove his discovery of a giant bird and Carl wishes to follow in Muntz's footsteps, exploring a remote area of South America. Carl is the only one of the two to realize that the present is more important than the past and that opening himself up to others is more satisfying than pursuing a solitary goal.

Carl is introduced as a child and a lovely sequence takes us through his married life with Ellie, a girl he meets when both are young and both fans of Muntz. It's essential for showing us that Carl's state of mind after Ellie's death is justified but that he is capable of more. Over the course of the film, he wakes up to the truth.

Charles Muntz is fixated on revenge for being branded a charlatan by the scientific establishment. While he seems to be a scientific genius, his choice is not to engage the world until he can reassert his prominence. He has apparently resorted to murder to prevent others from stealing the glory he feels he is owed. His megalomania never waivers; anyone with the potential to upset his plans becomes an enemy.

Carl's marriage is the basis for the rest of the film. People are at their best when they take others into consideration. Carl forgets this after his wife dies, but learns it anew during the events that follow.

The film beautifully balances humour, adventure and emotion. It has echoes of Winsor McCay's The Flying House and The Wizard of Oz. Unlike Wall-E, it doesn't raise issues that it can't, or won't, resolve. Up has a statement to make and makes it without pulling the film out of shape.

Do I have nits to pick? A few. I wish that Russell had been a girl. Ellie is a wonderful character, but when she leaves the film, there isn't another female in sight except for the bird. Even the dogs are all male. As an exercise, Pixar should start a story off with nothing but female characters and only make them male if the story demands it. That may be the only way there will ever be more than one memorable female in each Pixar film.

I wonder if this film could have been done without a villain? King Vidor said, “You know, villains are few and far between. The drama of life is not dependent on villains. They don’t have to be present to have a story. Divorce, tragedy, sadness, and illness are not dependent on villains.” Miyazaki has made films without villains such as My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service. Up may have been more difficult to write without the convenience of a villain, but it might have been stronger for it.

Charles Muntz's age is treated pretty cavalierly. He's got to be at least 93, and the Teddy Roosevelt reference would make him a minimum of 108. Carl Fredricksen also does some unbelievable things for a 78 year old who uses a cane and who can't climb stairs. We should all be so spry at their ages.

It may be a while before I like a Pixar film as much as this one. While I'm trying to keep an open mind on Toy Story 3, I'm afraid that it's driven more by business than by a story demanding to be told. Cars 2 will be the first Pixar film that I won't bother to see. I can't imagine anything done with those characters that would convince me to give up two hours of my life. For now, Up is enough and it will have to sustain me until somebody can make an animated film as good. It may be a long wait.


jim said...

Thanks for the review, Mark. I admit I was curious to see what you thought of the film. I thought it had some incredibly beautiful moments, and it was really nice to see a Pixar film with a genuinely important message that didn't come across as trite or simplistic (Cars particularly annoyed me in this regard).

However, the over-reliance on gags was disappointing, especially because some seemed really forced (the repetitive "prune juice" jokes, most everything to do with the talking dogs excluding the golden retriever, etc.) and at times it felt like a compromise between A) a serious drama with moments of character-driven humor and B) the gag/humor-driven stories we've been accustomed to in CG films.

It's almost as if they're growing up but they can't quite shed some old habits... or they just felt like they needed the gags to make it more kid-friendly. I don't know.

And your comment re: the lack of female characters, is dead on. Extremely disappointing :/

Floyd Norman said...

I haven't seen the "Up" since the story reels last year, and I'm pleased to say I wasn't disappointed when I viewed the finished film recently.

As far as "Toy Story3" goes, this is not a movie driven by marketing. I shared an office with the late Joe Ranft back in 1999 when we were both on "Monsters,Inc."

This final chapter is a story worth telling. It's every bit as good as "Toy Story2," maybe even better.

Francis said...

It was a great movie to watch! And I do agree that there were some forced gags with the dogs (not Dug). Although the majority of the movie focused on Carl in his old age, it was the beginning sequences of Carl and Ellie's childhood and later years together that really made the movie for me. The beginning might've been 10 minutes or so, but in the end those scenes are the ones that I remember the most. It was great!

kelipipo said...

Just wanted to say, Neat Review. I too prefer "Up" to "Wall-e" although for me it can't quiiiite top the world and contraptions of "Monsters, Inc." in creativity. I would give an arm and a leg to visit Monstropolis. Whereas Paradise Falls, sure maybe a toe, but ehh...
(Carl is boss, though.)

It's sometimes said that films with female lead characters don't appeal to as large an audience [which is kinda underestimating male viewers' imagination IMO -- I'm not male but I have faith in them]. Well, if the characters are created with the same attention that Pixar writers give the majority of their main characters (who happen to be male), yes they will. I wouldn't single Pixar out for that, obviously, it's the majority of the industry.
Until female leads are written well, those female leads won't be appealing, and they won't start writing them well until they are appealing...? :/

Heck, I spent my childhood playing Han Solo, Robin Hood and Peter Pan -- who in their right mind wants to be Leia, Maid Marian or Wendy instead, just because they happen to be the right gender?! Please.... And that's the principle I apply to watching movies, as well. I don't care that much whether the character is male or female, as long as I identify with & respect something in them, or want to experience what they are experiencing.

That said, I can't see any reason from story- or character development perspective why Carl couldn't have been an old lady, and Russell a plump girl scout.

Michael Sporn said...

The film starts off magnificently in a real world, then slowly migrates to a cartoon world of talking dogs and dogs flying BI-PLANES. I would have liked seeing what they could have done with fewer words of dialogue. Couldn't they have made the dogs and the film richer without their speaking? There were a lot of easy gags which they didn't want to avoid.

There are also a lot of references to the original King Kong. The music, at one point, if I'm not mistaken, riffs a Max Steiner cue.

The films a definite 3 1/2 stars, but could have been four with a little more story work. Plenty of enjoyable stuff here, though. A real improvement over Wall-E.

Mitchel Kennedy said...

Mark, you're right, there should be more females in these films. The writers and directors are always male, and so there's definitely a bias (it's natural). I definitely agree that more strong lead females would benefit a film.

I never considered this bit about not having a villain. It's definitely something to think about when writing my own stories.

As for the ages of the men; I thought about this as well, while watching the film. Then I realized that Carl flew to South America in a house older than him, lifted by helium party balloons, and piloted by a ten year old. In addition to that, it only took him the span of one nap time to get there.

I'm really impressed with these filmmakers for being able to have these characters be characters, while still having a house attached to them for the duration of the film. It's incredible how many things were happening at once AND working together -- I don't think I'll ever be able to do that.

Also very impressive was the amount of slap stick!!

Anonymous said...

i'm going to make this easy and say that i mostly agree. the film was beatyful and i loved the way they revealed the boys family situation in the night scene.

unfortunately i cannot say the same for partly cloudy it felt so basic to me other then some interresting ideas

Molasses said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Molasses said...

Thanks for the review Mark. Interesting note about Russell and that he should of been a girl. In Pete's short film "Next Door" (which I'm assuming you haven't seen and where the ideas for a square old man and circular kid first appear) the kid was a girl.

Tommy said...

I saw Up twice this weekend, and am absolutely in love with it.

Floyd Norman, thanks for the inside info on Toy Story 3!

Dan said...

im not reading it until i watch it hahahaha
good to know it is good tho!

Jenny Lerew said...

I believe Brenda Chapman's film set in a Scotland of hundreds of years ago, "The Bear and the Bow" has been announced as having a female lead.

That said, of course it's a natural bias that I see as understandable. When as a kid I wrote and illustrated my own stories I usually had the protagonist reflect me--a girl. I did put boys in there, too, and sometimes they'd be the lead-but then again, virtually all my favorite books and films had boys as the hero, too(Wart, Mowgli, Christopher Robin, Tom Sawyer, Tintin, the explorer in My Father's Dragon, etc).
I think the animation director who to date(I haven't seen "UP" yet btw) creates the most complex and empathetic female characters consistently is Brad Bird. In his screenplay for "Incredibles" he's just as interested in Helen as in Bob, and gives her if anything even juicier scenes. This reflects no aim other than telling a great story the best way and using the cast one's created to best effect, as it should be.
Although now that you mention it, would have been fun to see "Linguini" in "Ratatouille as a woman-why not? But one can go and on with these things.
You tell the stories you think of and are driven to tell(if you're in that rare driver's seat, that is).

But yes, it'd be an interesting exercise. And the ratio of female to male characters of importance in all film is still far below the 50-50 split we see in real life, everyday.

Unknown said...

Amazibg blog!

Kenneth Tam said...

Agree with your review, I like this film for what it is. Really enjoy the parts of Carl and Ellie's story in the beginning it was real, and heart warming,then the story changes to a totally different adventure journey. It is also good and exciting. However, the part of their ages do come to my head when they meets, so it does question me a little when i was watching. I also like the side story of Russel, and how the ending tie up with Ellie. Overall, I like it

Adam Pockaj said...

Just came back from seeing it. It was good. Especially the beginning. But like some people have said, the humour was a little...unsophisticated for Pixar. Doug was amazing but the other dogs were just kinda meh (except Alpha with the helium-esque voice that I thought would somehow tie in to the hundreds of balloons present in the movie). But the other dogs looked too realistic. Until they started flying bi-planes, then they just looked...silly.

P.S. As I recall, The Incredibles had more than one notable female character. But yeah, that seems to be the only one.

P.S.S. It was cool to see the names of a couple or last year's graduates in the credits. Not a bad first job!

Adam Pockaj said...

P.S.S.S. 3D sucks. This is the 3rd movie I've seen in 3D and will probably be the last (if I can help it). It adds nothing. Any amount of extra dimension it adds is not worth the cost of picture quality loss (especially during the many misty/cloudy scenes). For some reason it seemed to work in Monsters Vs Aliens (maybe cause I saw it in Imax or something) but in Up and Coraline it was a hindrance. I hope it goes away, or at least if the technology gets better it might be worth it, but I don't think its ready for us yet.

Robert said...

As far as making Russel a girl... I think him being a boy completely eliminates the possibility that that viewers will wonder if Carl sees the character as a substitute for Ellie.

Live action Hollywood has a bad habit of pairing too-old men with too-young girls, so I'm sure the audience would have wondered if that was the object.

With Russel as a boy, he's a new challenge for Carl, a new adventure, and not some sort of potentially weird psychological entanglement related to the past.

I like Pixar's treatment of the human form. They've come a long way since Toy Story on that. I wonder what the humans will look like in TS3? Probably back to semi-real I suppose.

Anonymous said...

"Live action Hollywood has a bad habit of pairing too-old men with too-young girls, so I'm sure the audience would have wondered if that was the object."

I don't think that would have been remotely a problem.
Yes, it's true that Harrison Ford or any other "older" actor is paired with a younger female 99% of the time, but those are all, in every instance, marriageable females and "love interests"(which is why some critics are so bugged by it-because the equation is never done in the reverse with an older woman/younger man-it's s societal, sexual thing), not small children under age 10. In fact, there'd be no danger of any misconstruing of Carl and a girl's relationship unless she was a young women, and even then it'd be a stretch. To imagine it'd be a problem with a kid is reaching too far.

It's an interesting point to suggest that psychologically if Russell had been a girl she might have been perceived as an Ellie substitute for Carl, but in fact, that's exactly what RUSSELL is in the story--he's there to show that Carl actively rejects and doesn't want ANY new human attachments. He feels like he's had the best possible with Ellie, and now that she's died his story is over, as far as moving on with his life is concerned. This point, which was beautifully made with Carl/Russell, could as easily been made with Carl/8 yr old girl scout. I think it works as it is, but again, it's interesting, once a film is done, to sometimes imagine what could have been done differently.

Robert said...

I think the problem is not so remote.

Remember that Carl and the audience are introduced to Ellie as a young girl, not as an adult woman. We never even hear her speak as a adult.

Making Russel a boy eliminates the potential confusion entirely. Solving a problem simply has got be better. It's not a role that's yearning to be female anyway.

Hodges said...

I loved it, the further from reality it went the more fun I was having, I do agree with the idea of not having a villain, as to me he was the weakest character in the film, the hinting towards him being a malicious murderer was unneccessary in my opinion.

so much better then wall-e

Allie said...

I was pretty surprised with the immensely positive response to Pixar's latest film. As usual it seems, I'm being the black sheep and not enjoying the favorites as much as everyone else seems to. Personally, though it was still enjoyable, this is tied with Wall-E and Cars for being my least favorite Pixar film.

I won't go into detail over what it was about the film that I didn't enjoy as the other reviews pretty much covered it. I also didn't feel any emotion when Ellie died, which I think set me up for being nonplussed for the rest of the film. But one thing that no one has mentioned yet, that really, really bothered me was Alpha Dog's voice. I thought that the chipmunk voice was an outrageously cheap way of getting a few chuckles, especially because in my mind Pixar is so above that form of unimaginative gag. The dogs being able to speak in general did not affect me but Alpha's voice was unbearable.

Otherwise, like I said, the review links you posted pretty much sum up my feelings towards the movie.

Hopefully Toy Story 3 will be more enjoyable.