Pixar has this wonderful paradox it's been able to exploit where critical tastemakers judge the studio's features favorably against the enormous amount of animated dreck that gets released without really applying the same scrutiny as would greet a live action film. The rationale seems to be that the Pixar movies are for kids so they get a longer leash, but so often these very pictures are touted as being just as delightful for the parents as the children. Rave reviews garland the films, they make oodles of cash, and an Oscar statuette typically awaits. No one wants to seem like the grump who dares criticize the cuddly monolith of Pixar. It's like there's some air of ungratefulness in questioning the almighty deities of computer animation. But just because the films are good and the other animated features are largely intolerable for adults doesn't require giving Pixar a pass every time the same basic formula is trotted out like it's the annual chosen one. Showing appreciation is fine, but ignoring just how flawed these movies often are when measured as something other than distractions for children should also be allowed, even encouraged.
The ultimate hope would then be that Pixar will someday make a feature that largely avoids cliches, resists oversentimentalization, and doesn't feel obligated to use action sequences which tend to lack any suspense since everyone already knows the protagonist will emerge victorious. Happy endings are fine. They're great, but tighten the ship a little Pixar. Of course, these things are never going to happen because, yes, the consensus continues to enable such limitations to persist via the laudatory reviews and massive box office success. Pixar's secret formula is to please the audience with the cliche, sentiment and action, plus some remarkably beautiful animation, while winning over critics both by having poor competition and by including moments of truly awe-inspiring cinema. The company has never lacked for brilliance on a small scale. Its shorts are still the most artistically successful part of the Pixar brand, and there are at least half a dozen of those which are far superior to any of the features. Certain chunks of the films are completely brilliant in every conceivable way. The first half hour of Wall-E, for instance, belongs in the pantheon of cinematic greatness. Similarly, a poignant, even tearful sequence occurs near the beginning of the latest Pixar outing Up that really takes the strengths exhibited by the shorts and applies them to this swatch in a full-length movie.
The plot of Up is fairly and impressively multi-faceted, though unfocused might be an equally apt description. A timid young boy fascinated with adventure sees his idol on the big screen in a newsreel probably from the 1930s. The bespectacled boy, Carl Fredricksen (wonderfully given voice in the majority of the film by Ed Asner), wears an aviator's cap and goggles to try and emulate the explorer Charles Muntz, who becomes somewhat disgraced by charges he fabricated the bones of an exotic bird he'd discovered near Paradise Falls in Venezuela. Young Carl unexpectedly finds young Ellie, a spunky redhead who shares the same love of adventure, and soon enough we're ready for the most wonderful montage you're likely to see for a long time. It's still the first few minutes of the movie and the tears have already welled up in your eyes. Just achingly gorgeous work on Pixar's part. It's rare to find a better display of humanity and life and all the things we hold important than what's portrayed in this sequence. If they gave Oscars for greatest moments in film, with any justice, this would win.
The action picks up decades later, in contemporary times, and Carl is now elderly, alone and his house is in the middle of a construction zone. The overseeing forces of the ostensible improvement are portrayed as wearing suits and sunglasses, attached to a wireless phone, and generally appearing like slick corporate executives. This is another example of Pixar's false resistance to a certain business specimen that keeps appearing in these films. Pixar is, unequivocally, a major part of the Walt Disney family, a company that is the "largest media and entertainment conglomerate in the world," yet it seems obsessed with bending reality to be portrayed as the little guy. You're not really fighting the good fight when all of those non-biodegradable plastic Wall-E toys are littered throughout the global marketplace.
Speaking of Wall-E, a chubby little kid straight out of the blobby humans in that film becomes our second main character in Up. Russell the junior wilderness explorer (voiced with a perfect mix of innocence and energy by young Jordan Nagai) needs only to earn his Assisting the Elderly badge to be a full-fledged senior wilderness explorer. He zeroes in on Carl, and when the old man decides to trick the people trying to put him in an assisted living center by attaching a festival of helium balloons to lift his house into the sky, Russell invites himself to tag along. The intended destination is, appropriately, Paradise Falls. As this unbelievable monstrosity flies through the atmosphere, it seems that the viewer is expected to simply accept such an idea at face value. Sure a bunch of balloons could allow a house to go up in the air and be directed to Venezuela. Why not, right. Well, it's obvious fantasy and one can accept that. The trouble with fantasy, and things only continue to stretch just how far the reasonable person would comfortably allow, is that it lessens how affecting the non-fantastic elements can be. An allegory can get away with a great deal, but Up is hardly an allegory.
Without wanting to give away any more of the plot, it should suffice to register the complaint of how brazenly unrealistic Up skews. There's the house, sure, but also the leap of how a guy who should probably be around 110 years old manages to play such a vital role. A few other things best left self-discovered also remain bothersome. Still, these are all forgivable concerns despite being caused by what is basically lazy story development. What's more troublesome is this rut of obviousness that Pixar films create by throwing in nonsense physical comedy and forced conflict. It seems like an appeal to the masses, but how unfortunate that it's the masses who are being appeased. Most all of Pixar's films have clearly outlined how idiotic the masses tend to be, yet time and again it's those very people who are catered to in the dumbing down aspects of these movies. The message Pixar is presenting is woefully mixed, and each of the company's films will be similarly flawed as long as the prize remains both the cake and the luxury of eating it.
Up is out now in the USA and Canada and is expected to open in UK cinemas on 16th October 2009.