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.

Pass the Popcorn: Things Are Looking Up – Or Are They?

May 29, 2009

UP 1

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Well, I’m going to owe a lot of people their money back on this post. Bowled over by the new Star Trek film (which you should really go see if you haven’t already) I overconfidently predicted that it would be the best movie of the year, and offered a refund on the price of the blog post to anyone who felt differently at year’s end. My reasoning at the time – as I explained in the comment thread – was as follows: “Take a look at what else is on the docket for this year. See anything that’s likely to be better?”

Guess what I had completely and totally forgotten about?

When I realized that a Pixar movie was coming out this summer, here’s what I felt like:

UP 2

But who knows? Pixar has been less than stellar in the past – remember A Bug’s Life and Monsters Inc.? Both are better than the average family movie, but to say that is damning with faint praise.

And UP comes to us from a relatively untested creative team. It was written by Bob Peterson and co-directed by Peterson and Pete Docter. Both have accumulated some secondary credits at Pixar – Peterson got secondary writing credits on Finding Nemo and Ratatouille; Docter got “story” credits on both Toy Story movies, Monsters Inc. and Wall-E; both have worked on Pixar shorts, direct-to-video projects, videogames, etc. (Peterson was also the voice of Ray the science teacher in Nemo and Roz the bureaucrat-cum-deus-ex-machina in Monsters.) Neither seems to have done much outside Pixar.

Between the two of them, there’s only one topline credit before UP. Guess what it is?

Docter directed Monsters Inc.

Let’s see how far back we have to go before we find a Pixar movie with a similarly untested creative team:

Wall-E: Written and directed by Andrew Stanton of Finding Nemo

Ratatouille: Written and directed by Brad Bird of The Incredibles and The Iron Giant (a masterpiece you really must see if you haven’t yet)

Cars: Written and directed by John Lasseter of Toy Story & Toy Story 2

The Incredibles: Written and directed by Brad Bird of The Iron Giant

Finding Nemo: Written and directed by Andrew Stanton of . . .

. . . well, OK, I guess the last time we had an untested creator at the helm, we did pretty well, didn’t we?

But guess when the last time before that was? Monsters Inc. Directed by Pete Docter.

I suppose I’m being overly pessimistic. It’s partly because I don’t want to have to shell out all that money on my ill-advised guarantee.

But I have another reason to suspect UP will be no good – I loved the teaser trailer.

No, seriously. Up until now, I have hated every teaser trailer I’ve seen from Pixar. I hated the teaser for Finding Nemo. I hated the teaser for The Incredibles. I really hated the teaser for Cars. I don’t remember seeing the teaser for Ratatouille but I didn’t go in with high expectations so I can’t have liked it if I did see it. And I was, I guess, nonplussed by the teaser for Wall-E – by that time I had learned that hating the teaser was actually a good sign, so that changed my whole outlook on them.

So up until now the teasers have been awful and the movies have been great. What does it say that the teaser for UP made the movie look really good?

This is the second of what I guess will be an annual series of Pass the Popcorn entries on Pixar. I don’t think I can top what I said in the first edition, so I’ll stop here.

Except I will note that the plot synopsis for Toy Story 3 has changed pretty radically since I first expressed such trepidation about it. Before, there was a whole paragraph, which I don’t remember in detail but it was about Woody and Buzz getting thrown away after Andy grows up. Now it’s just one sentence, and Woody and Buzz are ending up in a day care. That sounds much more promising.