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Review: Up

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I read a discussion of Up recently — I don’t remember where — which said that the movie was ultimately about acceptance of death, which is an awfully adult theme to find in a kids’ film. (Truth be told, of course: Pixar movies are family movies, not kids’ movies, and there’s a big difference.) I think that statement’s close, but not quite accurate: it’s more fair to say Up deals with the ability or inability to accept change in all its forms and learning to let go of the past, whether that past was one or seventy years ago. Up reminds us that when someone we love passes on — or even just passes out of our lives — life doesn’t end for those of us left behind.  Up suggests we appreciate the little things in life and that those little things can be bigger than the biggest adventure.

And Up gives us these weighty messages wrapped up in the gaudy Mylar of thousands of helium-filled balloons.

As I discussed in my ranking of the ten Pixar movies to date, the “worst” (for some awfully lenient definition of “worst”) of their films don’t engage the emotions nearly as much as they engage the eyes.  That fault most certainly does not plague Up – I have to admit that I cried while watching it, and I can’t remember if I’ve ever done that before.[1] Pixar started their career by finding the humanity in inhuman characters (toys, bugs, monsters, etc.), but in Carl Frederickson they’ve created quite possibly their most human character yet.

Director Pete Docter lays out all we need to know about Carl in the first ten minutes of the movie, covering sixty-odd years of his life during the opening sequences.  His crankiness is given believability and meaning; grumpy though he may be, he doesn’t fit the simple Grumpy Old Man stereotype.  Carl is not ill-tempered by nature but by circumstance, and it’s the circumstance of meeting Russell, his young opposite, which begins to bring him out of his emotional hole.

Russell couldn’t be much more Carl’s antithesis:  young where Carl is old; optimistic and exuberant where Carl is withdrawn and cranky; brave and adventurous where Carl is shuttered.  Even visually the difference is clear:  Carl is almost a perfect square, Russell is almost a perfect egg.  What the two have in common is something of a common history, and the bond which develops because of it, each affecting the other, ultimately provides much of Up’s lift.

I must talk for a minute about the dogs which feature so prominently in Up.  To see just what an amazing feat of modeling and animation these dogs represent, what a leap in quality, please go back and watch the first Toy Story.  Even at the time, watching Buster felt like a “they’re not quite there yet” moment in the middle of an otherwise technologically mind-blowing (again, for 1995) movie: his square, awkward build and clunky animation left plenty of room for improvement.

And improve they did.  Each of the dogs here has not only a distinctive and well-rendered look, but a clear and well-animated personality as well.  Dug was especially done well:  his character model may be cartoonier than the other dogs’, but that more cartoony look allowed for more expressiveness, which the animators used to fantastic effect.  His look also visually sets him apart from the other, more realistically-modeled dogs so that we never group him in with the “bad” dogs.  Dug stands out as my favorite character in the movie:  the fact that he always remains Just A Dog and never an especially “humanized” or anthropomorphized dog (even though he could speak) was one of Docter’s nicest touches.


[1] I cried during The Iron Giant, but that’s totally different since I saw it on DVD.  Brad Bird lined up all of my emotional buttons and punched them all at once. The big meanie.

Written by Allen

June 4th, 2009 at 9:21 pm

Posted in Movies,Reviews

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Ten2One: Ranking My Pixar Favorites

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Welcome to the first installment of yet another new ongoing series I just now thought up:  Ten2One, which is, in all honesty, just a fancy handle for a fairly standard Top 10 list.  To kick things off, in honor of the opening of Pixar’s tenth animated feature, Up, I present to you my ordering, from worst to first, of my favorite Pixar movies.

10. A Bug’s Life (1997)

While A Bug’s Life might be my least favorite Pixar movie, I want to note that I don’t at all think it’s bad.  It’s still perfectly entertaining, and the leap in technology from Toy Story, their first film, to this, their second one, was immense – just look at that model bird in the big climax.  But A Bug’s Life also featured their most annoying lead character, and most of the secondary cast, while funny, didn’t have any of the emotional connection that the great Pixar movies have.  This one gets a solid B from me, which is still damn good for being in the bottom slot on this list.

9. Cars (2006)

pixar-cars-largeI know John Lasseter’s The Man at Pixar and all, but this labor of love from him was…underwhelming.  Again, certainly not bad – and it’s held up surprisingly well to the several thousand of viewings of it I’ve endured thanks to my two daughters.  But I think the fundamental problem with Cars was much the same as with A Bug’s Life:  its lead character simply wasn’t compelling enough (Owen Wilson‘s voice just didn’t connect with me) and the supporting cast was colorful but not especially engaging (Paul Newman‘s Doc Hudson aside).  Maybe that’s a problem which will get rectified in the sequel.

(Side note: I have a separate post brewing about that difference between these two “lower tier” Pixar movies and all the ones above it; I hope to get that written sometime this week.)

8. Monsters, Inc. (2001)

And now we enter the solid A-minus-and-up range with the movie which has bumped farthest down the list simply because all the films released after it have been better.  And that “emotional connection” thing I mentioned was missing from numbers nine and ten above?  Yeah, totally present here.  There’s more pure emotion in the closing shot of Sully than in those last two flicks put together.  (Pixar Show-Off Shot:  Sully’s fur, especially when blowing in the wind and covered in snow.)

7. Toy Story 2 (1999)

In many ways, probably a superior film to the original Toy Story, but this list is rating my favorite Pixar movies, not necessarily the best, and that’s a small but important distinction to make.  Story goes that Toy Story 2 was supposed to be a straight-to-video release (banging out straight-to-video sequels was pretty much standard practice with Disney’s animated features then), but when Disney realized just how good it was, they had Pixar finish it up for theatrical release instead.  And good thing, too:  it went on to gross $245 million, making it the third-highest-grossing film of ‘99.

6. Up (2009)

My full review’s coming very soon, but for now I’ll say that Up is the first animated movie since The Iron Giant to make me cry.  (Yes, I know that’s more knocks against my Jason Statham-like Tough Guy image.)

5. Ratatouille (2007)

One of the things I absolutely adore about this movie – even aside from the gorgeous renderings of Paris and the celebrations of both cooking and eating – is the fact that lead characters are so flawed.  Remy is petty, obstinate, defensive and rash; Linguini is weak (to begin with, anyway), cowardly, willing to take credit not due him, and equally rash.  Yet together, they manage to lift themselves above their “humblest beginnings” (so says the critic Anton Ego) to incredible successes – and they lift Ratatouille up, too.

4. Toy Story (1995)

toy-story1I first discovered Pixar in 1992 when I saw their short film “Knick Knack” as part of an animation festival in Tampa.  I immediately fell in love with the company — while they certainly weren’t the first company to produce computer-generated animation, they were far and away the best I’d seen yet — and I desperately looked forward to seeing more work from them.  Then two years later, I heard they were producing a feature-length animated film to be released by Disney.  I saw Toy Story the weekend it opened in theaters — a tradition I’ve continued to follow with all nine of their subsequent releases — and loved it even more than I’d been expecting to.  The technology obviously doesn’t hold up as well as one might hope, but hey, it’s fifteen years old; that’s lifetimes in terms of software development.  The story craft was already there, though, and (here’s a little secret for you) that’s just as important to me as the actual animation.  (Toy Story also sparked some of my earliest love for Joss Whedon, before I even knew who the hell he was!)

3. WALL-E (2008)

WALL-E has to be one of the most engaging, sympathetic leads in any movie in recent history; the fact that director Andrew Stanton and his crew managed to convey those qualities with such limited dialogue really is amazing.  Yes, OK, fine — the environmental message can come across a little preachy.  Or a lot preachy.  But it’s a good message, so it doesn’t much bother me, especially in the service of such an excellent movie.

2. Finding Nemo (2003)

One of the most finely-tuned scripts of any movie I’ve seen, animated or otherwise.  Not a scene or line feels wasted to me:  the Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay director Stanton received for this movie was very well justified.  Nemo features one of the strongest supporting casts of any of the Pixar flicks, and the interplay between Ellen DeGeneres‘ Dory and Albert Brooks‘ Marlin still makes me laugh (and care) every time I watch it.  Unsurprisingly, the bit about the overprotective father learning to let go gets to me, too.  (Also, Nemo was the first of four Pixar movies to date to take home the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.)

1. The Incredibles (2004)

incrediblesHonestly?  The Incredibles is my favorite movie, period.  Here’s the thing:  when I first saw the teaser trailer for this one before Finding Nemo and found out what it was about and who was behind it, my mind was already blown.  It’s Pixar?  And superheroes?  And it’s written and directed by Brad Bird, the genius behind The Iron Giant, my favorite non-Pixar animated movie?  My expectations were so high that I was convinced there was no way this movie could possibly live up to them.

But it did.  To make a bad Pixar joke:  if my expectations were infinite, then The Incredibles went to infinity and beyond.  The characters are richly nuanced and believable, the animation and design are stunning, the script respected its audience’s intelligence, the heroic action scenes are, well, incredible…honestly, The Incredibles is pretty much my platonic ideal of a movie.  I sincerely hope they never make a sequel, because I don’t think it could do the original justice.

Of course, Pixar’s blown away my expectations before…

Written by Allen

June 2nd, 2009 at 2:00 pm