Tuesday, February 2, 2010

UP is the new Z

The Oscar nominations are out. Up received nominations in both Best Animated Picture and Best Picture, much like Z in 1969 received noms in both Foreign and Best Picture as well. The full list of nominations follows.

Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, A Serious Man, Up, Up in the Air

As for acting the expected winners were all nominated - Jeff Bridges, Sandra Bullock, Christoph Waltz, Mo'Nique - and the two front runners for Director, James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow, got their expected nods as well.

But let's get back to Up for a moment. I have a longstanding disdain for Pixar's movies and have learned to bite my tongue on the subject. However, Up has now received nominations in both and I want to at least air my views on it since it now has the whiff of distinction about it.

I consistently find myself less enamored than everyone else of Pixar's insufferable whimsy. I find most of their films good to very good as children's films but not very good as films overall whereas I would rank something like Carol Ballard's Black Stallion as an excellent children's film and an excellent film overall. And of course I do like several Pixar efforts, from Toy Story to Finding Nemo. Around that point, after the release of Finding Nemo, they started to believe their own press and started injecting their childhood fantasies with adult sentiments, producing for me an uneasy mix. And now, against my better judgment, I will let loose.

I have often heard full grown adults speak in reverent tones of movies like Ratatouille, saying things like, "It's really about this," or "really about that." In other words, if one disdains the story of a rat wanting to be a chef one gets, "Oh, but it's really about being honest with yourself and ..." blah, blah, blah. They say this as if for the first time in cinematic history Pixar is delivering messages with its movies and thus is better. I always follow up by asking if other children's classics, from Snow White to 101 Dalmatians, aren't also "really about" something else. Of course they are. All children's movies, books, television shows and all other forms of media are about lessons. Pixar is not new in this. What they are new at is trying to package the lesson for the adult viewer and then having the great mass of unsophisticated adult viewers lap it up.

"Oh, that final statement by the food critic about where art can come from... it was just so amazing, wasn't it?"

Oh, Christ! That pretentious pie-hole speech in that goddamn high-on-itself movie makes me squirm in my seat. The only thing that could have made it bearable for me was if the filmmakers had been honest and before Peter O'Toole's character delivers it, put up a title card that read, "Attention: The movie you have been watching, about a rat that can control a human's movements by pulling on his hair, will now make a faux-serious statement about art so that critics and fans can claim this is a great movie. We sincerely hope you are gullible enough to shovel it down your throat and ask for more. Thank you for your time. Enjoy."

Okay, that's going a little too far but damn, it felt pretty good to type that. I have felt this way from Ratatouille to Up. This need to inject some kind of adult statement into the mix to signal it's more than "just a kid's movie" which, in my book, implies kid's movies aren't worthy enough on their own and so I would propose Pixar is the enemy of the kid's movie. Take the "Baby Mine" scene from Dumbo. It does what a kid's movie should do, it plays on sentiment that children can understand. That often comes off as too cutesy or sentimental to the adult in the audience but too goddamn bad, the movie's made for your kid not you. But not anymore. Now they want to get the money of the teens and the twenty-somethings so they inject a little pseudo-adult dialogue into the mix, plenty of wry humor and the kid's movie more and more recedes into the history books. And the children suffer for it. Having four children who grew up with Pixar changing the landscape I can tell you that I have heard far more praise for Pixar movies from adults than I ever got from my kids.

The latest Pixar release was Up, the movie that started this whole post. I haven't been pleased with other Pixar releases but Up bothered me more than most. One of the things most discussed by those lavishing praise on it is the montage of our lead character and his wife as they go through their lives together leading up to her death, including the indication that they cannot have children. I found this montage not Dumbo-like in its sentimental heart-string tugging but entirely too self-aware of its importance as a set piece. And I then wondered why others didn't view it that way. Like the Ratatouille speech it should come with a title card explaining its true purpose is not exposition but wowing the critics to help hype the movie. It's not a bad way to provide exposition, in fact it's a very good way to do so, but the movie makes too much of it, takes too long with it so enamored is it of itself. Imagine the breakfast table montage in Citizen Kane, showing the deterioration of Kane's marriage, stretched out to ten minutes. Where's the restraint anymore?

But it's the actual story that bothered me most. Carl Fredericksen watches newsreels as a boy of a great adventurer, Charles Muntz, who, after going to Paradise Falls in South America, returns with the skeleton of a great exotic bird that the experts say is a fake, and that Muntz is a fraud. Muntz vows to go back to Paradise Falls and not return until he has a live bird to prove it. Carl meets Ellie, another Muntz admirer, and the two promise to go to Paradise Falls together one day but never do. They spend their lives together until her death when Carl is left alone. At which point he decides to fulfill Ellie's wishes and go to Paradise Falls.

NOPE! I just made that last sentence up! That's not what happens. What happens is that Carl has run afoul of developers who want to buy his house for urban development. The construction people are very nice to him and always friendly. He does not at any point in the movie seem to notice this. Instead, when one of them accidentally hits and then tries to fix his mailbox, a mailbox that he and Ellie made, he is attacked by Carl who whacks him with his walker, cutting open his forehead. After
this Carl is prosecuted and ordered to sell his house so that he can be put into nursing home care, which seems like a real stretch but we go with it because that's what the movie says. Truth is, when one person blocks major urban development cities invoke the right of Eminent Domain and simply buy the person out whether that person wants it or not. But again, the movie goes with the judgment against Carl as their story route so we go with it. And then on the day he is to be taken away, Carl (who has somehow attached thousands of balloons to his house without being noticed - he sold balloons at the zoo his adult life) releases the balloons and, supported by strings, they lift the house off its foundation and he's on his way to Paradise Falls. NOT because of Ellie, rather to evade the court-ordered judgment. The message for kids being, I suppose, that if you ever break the law and the courts pass down a judgment you should flee before it can be carried out.

Now that he is traveling to Paradise Falls we realize he has a charming kid in tow to be his humorous sidekick throughout. All kid's movies have to have a sidekick and Russell, the kid, suffices well enough. Then they arrive at Paradise Falls and come across dogs with special collars that allow them to speak. Whimsy overload warning! They also come across that magical bird, drawn to Russell's chocolate. And then, lo and behold, they come across Charles Muntz, still there, still holding to his promise to not return until he had a live specimen. And for his troubles the movie promptly makes him the villain. That's right. The old guy, Carl, who never did what he promised Ellie until he had to escape prosecution is the hero. The old guy, Muntz, who stuck by his word for all these years is the bad guy. To writer Thomas McCarthy and writer-directors Bob Peterson and Pete Docter, may I just offer up a healthy and hearty "fuck you!"

And it gets worse. They turn Muntz into a homicidal maniac because... well, I don't know why quite honestly. For whatever reason this noble adventurer now kills people who come to Paradise Falls. Was he killing people before if he thought they were stealing his glory? I don't know but he sure does now. And how did he make the talking-dog-collars? Couldn't he sell that, make billions (hell trillions - can you imagine if people could buy a collar and then actually hold a conversation with their dog!) and then fund a MASSIVE expedition to prove he was right? Anyway, he doesn't. He just hangs out and kills people and here's the worst sin: He wants to... oh my God... it's so horrible I dare not type it.

I'll try again.

He wants to... no, no I can't, it's too horrifying.

Okay, one last try.

He wants to... take the bird back alive.

Wait, what?

Yes, he wants to take it back alive.  Not kill it or harm it in any way. Just take it back alive, like all those animals in the zoo Carl worked at that, apparently, Carl never had a problem with. There, I said it. That's what he wants to do. He wants to have something to show for seventy years of searching. And this, we are told explicitly by the actions of the movie, is an unforgivable evil. And he must die. And he does die. And we are made to feel happy that this evil man is now dead. And I don't care if I just spoiled it for you. Maybe now you won't put any money into this movie's pocket.

I know this movie received top flight reviews from some of the best out there. I know many of my most trusted comrades online liked it, hell, loved it. I am, of course, immeasurably disappointed by this but what can I do? Sometimes people just see things differently and I see Pixar in a vastly different light than do most others. Hopefully though, I have provided some evidence as to why. And so I find myself depressed that Up not only received nomination in the "Best Animated" category, and has the support of so many, but also in the "Best Picture" category, giving it a distinction that I sincerely and profoundly do not believe it deserves. And frankly, that just gets my ire... up.