Pass the Popcorn: Time to Get UP!

December 30, 2009

(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.