Friday, August 7, 2009

In Which I Prove Myself a Grump; or, UP (Pete Docter, 2009)

UP is another superlative Pixar outing - low on inane jokes, the self-gratifying distraction of pop culture references, and the distracting gratification of potty humor, and instead, high on genuine pathos, exquisite animation, and a tangle of life lessons to sort through with your kids if you have 'em - which is unceasingly more alluring than the dullard sitcoms of Dreamworks Animation and its ilk. PIXAR attempts artistically sound filmmaking and storytelling, that which prides in subtlety and nuance (the most humane characteristics, as far as I see things) and so forgo the commercial appeals of generalization and mass culturism and whatever "-centricity" that are pandered to by animation studios more interested in targeting niches instead of realizing that all walks can be united by the true challenge (to both audience and maker) that is a good story with the grandest ambitions and the greatest sincerity of intellectual endeavor [case in point, last year's WALL-E, a truly visionary and fantastic fable (despite shortcomings) of soft-spoken speculative fiction], leading, then, the intellectually and emotionally willing a forward step towards moral and intellectual maturity. It is non-pandering, challenging, ambitiously sincere mainstream entertainment, ambushing the realm of mainstream children's entertainment, which is such a large part of children's experience, and providing them joy that has little to do with kung fu animals and collect-'em-all dragons (and I'm taking a jab at two of the better Dreamworks offerings).

This is what PIXAR does: contribute so entirely healthily to the development of minds - young minds - by infiltrating the morass of joke-driven, gimmick-driven popular culture they are exposed to, and taking on the challenge of making awe-inspiring, horizon-expanding movies in the mainstream sphere. PIXAR is mainstream, tentpole moviemaking that has proven always, unerringly healthy, taking on the brute force of the masses by showing just how engaging and mind-blowing sophistication can be - making the family movie equivalent of culinary delicacy, as is so wonderfully emphasized in PIXAR's 2007 film Ratatouille.

PIXAR is practically an institution now, producing one film per year; a self-sustaining production studio (despite working under Disney's banner), universally valued, and one at which we can expect to find that value of sincerity, subtlety, and nuance which is lacking in most else that we can call "institutions," those things that belabor and presume their influence on society by insisting on the broadest dogmas. Even as I will pursue to take down the critically acclaimed UP down a couple pegs, my admiration of PIXAR - and the lofty terms it's adopted for its cultural function - maintains its placement.

Similarly to Ratatouille, UP takes a rather outlandish premise and convincingly makes us buy into it with the help of carefully chosen real world details, like the balloon strings pulled so tight you can pluck them, and the usual Pixar scattering of unexaggerated emotional content. The opening montage and the pivotal scrawled message snuck into Carl's memento mori (a wife's promontory defensive-action, sprung-loaded before death, ready for that moment when Carl would need it most) are as poignant as the film sets them up to be.

And so, with all this said about UP's quality and integrity of spirit, I feel a bit petty and punctilious for now nitpicking the film, with such a clinical eye, the flaws of its more mechanical aspects and the niggling logical cracks in its admirable thematic veneer.

I cannot help but feel that the film betrays itself to the need of formula and frays its thematic edges in the process. There is a struggle to find cohesion between the poignance of Carl's life values regarding love as an adventure, with the pre-packaged dependability of a murderous megalomaniac as black-and-white villain, and the defense of the humane rights of a plucky, anthropomorphized bird, which come off slightly too much as cookie-cutter devices to shoe-horn into the film its diverting action plot, also involving talking, aeroplane-flying canines.

Imagine if this were a Miyazaki film like My Neighbor Totoro, which sustains its own story of mortality woes, emotional fantasies, and exotic creatures without implementing a literalistic antagonist or chase sequences. That film and UP are two different films with two different tones to register, of course, and UP happily justifies its high-flying thrills with its smartly in-built sentiments regarding extraordinary adventure, but the adventure plot in UP does not compliment well enough the emotional themes of the story. If this were a Miyazaki film, Carl's emotional transformations would not be so dependent on the actions of secondary characters forcing him into decisions of "the right thing to do vs. the wrong" - such as the Boy Scout Russell's decampment to rescue the bird forcing Carl into re-evaluating his obligations to his lost love. This, though, feels dislodged from what the film should be communicating, regarding how to let go of grief in order to perpetuate love and caring, not in order to perform moral obligations to a victimized animal.

The conflict between the villain Muntz and the bird is overplayed, both in Muntz' child-killing mercilessness and the bird Kevin's humanistic intelligibility (in her being a mother). The film's "right and wrong" bias is too decisive on the mechanics of Muntz' motivations and the bird's habitative rights instead of Carl's personal feelings. The ethical choices this plot puts upon Carl just feel thrust onto the film like a non-sequitur. Maybe Carl was right the first time, that Muntz and the bird really aren't his concern?

Really, and here is where my "grump" factor truly comes in (or "uncaring, animal-murdering son of a bitch" factor): if Muntz wasn't so evil, his desire to capture the bird would easily transform into a professional scientific expedition. The issue then would not be the harm brought to a lovable bird, but merely ecological ethics more sufficing of an NGO hissy-fit than a high-flying rescue mission by a motley trio. Not to mention, as callous as it is to say: animals get captured for exhibition all the time. That Carl must put aside his very personal odyssey in order to deal with a psychopath and put in sure enough peril his young stowaway-dependee's life for the sake of animal rights is a tall order to ask of the bereaved old man, and if Russell weren't such a fellow casualty of a broken family, I'm sure his demands on Carl would have much less of an impact. Russell's fatherlessness thus strikes me as rather shoe-horned and besides-the-point as well, added in only to create the most contrived of emotional attachments between the two characters, and most artificial of catalysts for Carl's realization that his own emotional fulfillment, I guess, does not have to be found in the heartbreakingly devoted way he originally planned - and especially when he's lucky enough to have a particularly needy surrogate son just pop up on his flying porch, of course having magically survived the initial ascent without having plummeted to his doom.

There is certainly well enough attempt to integrate the film's faulty plot mechanics into the thematic, tonal fabric of the film. For instance - firstly - the bird is made to be a mother, a thematic point meant to emphasize the sacrifices made in the name of that pure sort of love that consists motherhood - or the relationship between true soulmates, as were Carl and his deceased wife. Counteractively, though, this plot element weakens the film, in its targeting people's most conventionally enforced, default sense of morality instead of enlivening the message of living for the loves in one's life... living for love in transcendence and acceptance of boundaries made by societal expectations and personal sacrifices (such as, respectively, the bills that need paying in the film's prologue that keep Carl and his wife from realizing their dreams, and the corrupting need for respect instilled in Muntz that keeps him from embracing anything else, including a trace of compassion).

The film, in fact, would've worked better if Kevin did not have baby chicks. It would've given Carl's decision to value Kevin's life a more discerning imperative - a promotion of "new relationships," mostly, or just a new caring-for-the-sake-of-caring - instead of forcing on the audience arbitrary sympathies over orphan babies in an environment of Muntz' hostile gamesmanship.

Second in the film's attempt to link its arbitrary adventure elements to the gentle, nondescript tale of an old man fulfilling he and his dead wife's dream adventure is its characterization of Muntz's villainy. His ethical no-nos are shown to be driven by a lust for legacy (albeit one not frantically built upon fabrications, as often they are in the real world). This is as opposed to Carl, whose lack of progeny does not devalue the love of his wife and the love he can give because of that love. As moving as this contrast is, though, there is little to garner from Muntz' psychosis itself, due to how one-note and simplistic the character is.

UP - 7/10

Top 5 PIXAR:
1. Ratatouille
2. The Incredibles
3. Toy Story 2
5. Finding Nemo

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