Pass the Popcorn: Time to Get UP!

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Over Christmas I finally saw UP with my mom and brother. They both thought it was as good as anything Pixar has ever done. At least on first impression, I’m more inclined to agree with Marcus that it’s not quite as good as the very best Pixar has ever done, but it’s close.

But I reserve the right to revise and extend my remarks, and here’s why. What I think is holding this movie back from being quite as good as Toy Story 2 or Finding Nemo is its somewhat less organized plot structure. Like Toy Story 2 and Finding Nemo, UP has a main character who needs to learn something about the meaning of life, and over the course of the movie he learns it. But while UP is an oustanding movie, I felt that it didn’t “earn” its moment of epiphany quite as well as its predecesscors. A little more careful organization of the plot leading up to the epiphany might have put it over the line into the top circle.

However! On second thought, it occurred to me that a careful “earning” of the epiphany may not suit the particular subject matter UP has chosen to treat. As you’ve no doubt picked up, UP is a movie about the desire for adventure. And I won’t be spoiling anything if I tell you that it’s especially about the masculine form of this desire. Other than the protagonist’s wife, who appears only in flashback, the only female “character” on the screen is a big squawking bird. And the bird is very distinctively an animal rather than a character with personality. Her animal-ness is constantly obtrusive; we’re never allowed to think of her as even a quasi-person. By contrast, the dogs we encounter (all of them male) are very deliberately personalized. The female is not devalued in this movie; it just happens to be a movie about something that is distinctive to the male.

And part of the distinctive masculinity of this movie is the way important things are understood without having to be said. If you’ve seen the movie, I’m thinking in particular of the moment when Carl is first called upon to fulfill the promise he made to Russell; the moment when he first has to choose between fulfilling that promise and fulfilling another promise he made to someone else; and the moment when he changes his mind. In most movies, each of those moments would have required a lot of dialogue or a long soliloquy. In UP, the first and third involve no dialogue at all, and the second involves only a few very short lines from Russell – Carl says nothing about his decision. Russell understands Carl without anything needing to be spoken.

So I’m open to the possibility that this particular movie may be better without the clearly organized buildup to the epiphany. Before I decide, I’d like to see it again knowing from the beginning what it’s all about and where it’s going.

But in any case it looks like I’m going to need to offer a thorough repentence of my guardedness about this movie before it came out. I was cautious partly for supersitious reasons (with every other Pixar movie I hated the trailer and loved the movie, but with this one I loved the trailer so I was afraid I’d hate the movie) and partly because the creative team – Pete Docter and Bob Peterson – was untested. But Andrew Stanton was untested until he made Finding Nemo.

Looking back, I’d say this is more vindicated than ever. It’s clear that Pixar is not just about John Lasseter. He was its founding father, and let’s give credit where it’s due. But the continued maturation of creative teams able to reproduce what Lasseter did proves that Pixar is not a man, Pixar is a business model. And it’s the best one to come down the pike in Hollywood since the studio system broke up.

One more housekeeping note. As I feared, it does appear that anyone who saw UP is eligible for a rebate on this.

7 Responses to Pass the Popcorn: Time to Get UP!

  1. Patrick says:

    Now I’m waiting for your movie review of Avatar. Is it really just Dances with Wolves with giant smurfs fighting an evil corporation that wants to take their smurfberries?

  2. Greg Forster says:

    I’ve already pretty much shot my bolt on that in the comments over on Jay’s Avatar thread.

  3. Patrick says:

    Ah, I missed all that due to Christmas vacation.

  4. SPOILER ALERT — I finally saw UP for the first time this morning and loved it. I think it belongs with Finding Nemo and others at the top of the Pixar pantheon. Yes, the movie is about adventure, but the adventure is life. We have to fill in the pages after “Stuff I’m Going to Do.” The lesson we are supposed to learn is that the stuff we are going to do doesn’t have to be “adventurous” to be meaningful. As Russell says, it is the little, boring stuff that matters most.

    And Greg is right that this message is geared mostly toward men because men are most likely to confuse adventurous with meaningful. Just think of the explorer, Muntz, who wastes his life to capture a bird and restore his honor. By comparison, Carl fills his life with meaning in his relationships, at first with Ellie and later with Russell.

    There is one more female character that Greg forgot to mention — the house. The house is Ellie, or at least Ellie’s body. The house, her body, comes to rest at Paradise Falls — not too symbolic. And as Carl acknowledges toward the end, it’s just a house. The body doesn’t last and isn’t what gives meaning. It is our relationships.

  5. Marcus Winters says:

    Great movie — though I still have to put it in the second teir of Pixar movies (which still makes it far better that just about anything else out there.)

    My issue is similar to Greg’s, but I don’t think identical. It just seemed to me that some of the action scenes were too long and a bit tacked on. In The Increadibles the action is just as big, but I thought it served more of a purpose — Mr. Incredible wanted to regain past glory, we had to see the mom as an action hero in her own right, the kids needed to find out for themselves and show the world what was unique about them. In Up, the action was often fun, but not as interesting.

    I’m surprised that no one in this thread has yet mentioned the silent montague of Carl and Ellie’s life together. It was really wonderful. Even if there was nothing else good about the movie seeing those few minutes were worth the price of admission. It also shows how much Pixar respects kids’ ability to hang on through not only silence but deep issues. At the screening I went to a small child behind me turned to his dad and whispered, “Did she die!?” At that time I thought it might be to heavy for those kids, but they seemed to still love it.

    It just goes to show what high standards we all have for Pixar movies that we all love the movie and yet keep discussing what we see as the flaws.

    BTW — did you guys see it in 3D or 2D? I’m wondering if the 2D experience was a bit different, though in this case I think it probably isn’t.

  6. I agree that the montage of Carl and Ellie’s life was fantastic. And I entirely agree that part of Pixar’s greatness is its unwillingness to talk down to children (or adults).

    I saw it in 2D at home on DVD. Maybe that’s why the action scenes didn’t distract me from the story.

    Wherever one places UP in the pantheon, it is impressive how consistently good virtually all of the Pixar films have been. Cars was the least impressive but even that was a perfectly fine kids movie compared to most. All of the rest from Pixar have been head and shoulders above the crowd.

  7. Marcus Winters says:

    I recently saw Cars again — it’s still horrible.

    I also saw Ratatouille again — I like it even more than before (though I think it has to stay in Tier 2)

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