A few days after seeing Pixar's Up, but before I had actually written this review of it, I was taken to task by the five year old son of a friend of mine. He apparently took offense toward my putting down of such a (in his opinion) fine film as Up. How he had gathered my opinion on the film I am still not quite sure, but there he was anyway. How dare I dislike this film. How dare I dislike any Pixar film. Perhaps I should not review children's films anymore, or at the very least, perhaps I should allow him to review them with me. Since he immediately went kid-shy on me when asked for his opinion by his mother (I do know he loved the talking dogs though) I must instead trudge on, alone at the helm of this review, and give my nearly thwarted critique of this, Pixar's tenth animated feature, and as the ads boldly state, the first one in digital 3-D.
What my intrepid but reticent five year old fellow critic has possibly not taken into account is the simple fact that I actually did like Up. Well, perhaps like isn't the right word so much as enjoyed in piecemeal betwixt the antiseptic assembly-lineage filmmaking style that is Pixar (I believe it was Stanley Kauffmann who compared Pixar to the sterile General Motors corporation of 1950's America). The same Pixar that swooshes out practically perfect products with the greatest of ease, each and every year, to the seemingly obligatory and quite ubiquitous barrage of raves and rants and general genuflection from critics of all ills and ilks. Okay, perhaps the kid was right after all and I have no business reviewing children's movies, but Pixar's rather progressive outlook on the themes of their films leads one to the conclusion that these are not just children's films, plus he's not here right now so nerts to him. Have I mentioned lately that I'm not so much a kid person per se?
Truth be told I liked the talking dogs too (though even they got tiresome after about the 114th time they said something cute) and quite enjoyed the visual amusement park ride that was the film, with its melange of Crayola-inspired house-lifting balloons and equally colorful "snipe" companion that may or may not be an avian metaphor for the entire gay and lesbian community. I was moved by the touching, tragic love story that was the first ten minutes or so, what is essentially a cross between the angst of Revolutionary Road and the bawl-your-eyes-out ending of Make Way For Tomorrow, though it does get kind of schmaltzy even for this self-admitted sentimentalist. I even found myself downright giddy at times and almost rooting for that cranky old protagonist to finish his Quixotic adventure and find that proverbial end of the rainbow - even if it does get kind of obvious after a short while. All this aside, I still have a problem, not so much with the flaws of the movie (or of the previous nine Pixar pieces of confectionery syrup) but with the overall perfection of it all.
This may seem a strange complaint, bellyaching about something being made too well, with just too much precision and accomplishment, but Pixar films are so clean and spotless, so germ-free, and come wrapped in what seems like a large disinfected prophylactic full of bells and whistles and hoots and hollers, they inevitably lose the sometimes muddied heart and soul that is animation from Emile Cohl to Winsor McCay to Max Fleischer to Tex Avery to Chuck Jones to Charles Addams to Fritz Freleng to Rankin and Bass to Matt Groening to Seth MacFarlane to Miyazaki to the overgrown infants at Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. From hand-drawn to digital manipulation, animation needs that sometimes marred surface to be truly effective. It needs that soul that Chuck Jones and his ilk provided each and every time - for good or for bad. Even the short that plays before the feature (and which will inevitably receive its obligatory Oscar nomination for Best Animated Short come January), a little ditty called Partly Cloudy, is more in tune with the classic animation theories of Chuck Jones than the spit-shine big brother that follows it. Maybe the kid was right and I should shut up and get off the pot, but I just can't stop while I'm on a roll.
Last year's almost unanimously praised Wall-E, with its cinematic allusions to everything from 2001 to E.T. and its progressive green attitude, is probably the closest I have ever come to calling a Pixar film something great. Up is certainly an enjoyable film and one of Pixar's better works (only Ratatouille, The Incredibles and the aforementioned Wall-E are better) and I do not begrudge its "hospital corners" superiority (much) but in the end, visually titillating delights and doohickeys notwithstanding, it leaves one cold. It's almost as if Toto has finally pulled that curtain aside to reveal the quite ordinary man behind the machine. Perhaps Pixar is actually Oz in the end and we are all looking through emerald-coloured glasses completely unaware of the wicked witch skywriting her threats above our heads. I suppose I will have to ask my friend's five year old about this the next time I see him.
Okay okay. The film is fun (on a basic level) and maybe I shouldn't constantly bash you, the readers, over the head with my incessant knocking of visual perfection (or at least as close to perfection as humanly, or computerly possible) but I can't help myself. To recreate the comic strip Hi & Lois - again with the animation. Lois finishes showing houses to a real estate client and Hi asks her what he thought of them. She says he wanted to tear them all down. Why, Hi asks, is he a builder? No Lois says, he's a movie critic. Perhaps even after enjoying a film - for the most part - I still feel the need to find some fault, any fault, and use that to tear it down. Up is a well-made film, even with my reservations about its selling its soul to the company store and its somewhat overbearing cuteness. Maybe next time I am to review a so-called children's film I will get the anxious five year old to help me out after all. [06/06/09]