… up and away
UP (Pete Docter, USA, 2009) — 10
I think UP may be the first Disney(-ish) animated feature that actually has more for adults than children. Even at their best in THE INCREDIBLES, the TOY STORY movies, and CARS (shut up, everybody), the Pixar folks have made children’s fantasy movies; though, like the greatest of fantasies and fairy tales, the works are wise beyond their apparent years and appeal to adults too. Obviously, UP is not adults-only stuff like FRITZ THE CAT or HEAVY METAL. But its primary themes are adult matters (or at least issues that adults are likely to have first-hand knowledge of) and its central protagonist is an old man, named Carl Fredricksen. UP’s already most-famous scene is a several-minute wordless montage I hereby dub “Scenes from a Marriage,” which covers nearly Carl’s whole lifetime (for economy, eloquence and relevance in the tiniest details, it deserves comparison with the breakfast montage in CITIZEN KANE). But it concerns such adult matters as losing a child and having one’s youthful dreams, in this case to go to South America, not work out. For one reason and/or another, and not all nefarious or poor excuses.
This is a universal theme: One of my idols as a boy was Muhammad Ali, and I wanted to be heavyweight champion of the world and be as brash and funny as he was. That didn’t happen, for multiple reasons, but it’s fundamentally a realization most of us have in our 30s and 40s.¹ Things work themselves through in UP — it’s about leaving behind even disappointment itself, and accepting your “thrownness” as the grounding for new possibility. But even plugging into the problem in the first place requires an adult sensibility — the sky is not the limit, you can’t do whatever you want, believing in yourself is not enough, etc.
But … and this is the true measure of the Pixar genius here, even this very adult material doesn’t exclude children, one way or another. I’ll give two examples.
First, right at the start we get a newsreel detailing the great feats of explorer Charles Muntz, and it’s clearly a parody of “The March of Time” newsreels of the 30s and 40s, with the melodramatic narrator’s voice, the deliberately clever alliterations like Muntz “conceived the craft for canine comfort,” and tics like having the narrator say word-for-word what Muntz says right afterward. Students of 30s journalism can pat themselves on the back, but the tics Pixar is borrowing are still funny in themselves — indeed, funny because of the very anachronism if you don’t know this was once the normal style in American journalism. Similarly there’s a moment in the newsreel where Muntz unveils an enormous skeleton on a public stage for scientific review. Again, it pays homage to a famous 30s work (KING KONG), but it works on its own terms and eventually undergirds much of the to-do once the protagonists wind up in South America, rather than something just dropped in so the film-makers let us know that they’ve seen the same stuff we have. But more importantly, and unlike in “The March of Time” parody at the start of CITIZEN KANE,² UP cuts away from the newsreel repeatedly to show us the actual concern of the scene — Carl as a little boy watching the newsreel. We see him reciting its lines to himself as he walks home; “Muntz crosses the Grand Canyon,” he says as he leaps over a crack in the sidewalk. A shared love for Muntz brings Carl a new friend and a secret club — this is all prime kid-movie territory, even though it come surrounded by material children won’t “get.”
The other scene I wanna mention as an example of how Pixar gets all the details right, is really just a quick shot; if you blink, you miss it. But that’s kinda why it’s great. Late in the movie, after it’s been established that the villain has a team of trained dogs, Carl, son-figure Russell, and some animals are trying to sneak up and surprise the villain. We get a quick shot of the bad dogs keeping watch that I can’t reproduce, though I assure you it looks very VERY much like the still attached to this paragraph. That image is one of a series of about a dozen oil paintings collectively known as “Dogs Playing Poker” — a masterpiece of early 20th-century commercial American kitsch (they were commissioned for a cigar ad campaign) and immediately recognizable as such. The shot in UP is a funny homage if you recognize it; it’s also funny that, rather than poker chips in the paintings, the canine card-sharks in UP are playing for dog biscuits. But here’s what’s best — the scene in no way depends on your getting the art reference (most kids won’t, in fact), it hardly lasts more than a second, and it’s not emphasized or pushed on you. “Dogs Playing Poker” doesn’t *stop* the movie, in other words. It’s a wink and a nudge to those who get it that doesn’t baffle those who don’t. Pixar has in spades what used to be called “tact” and “touch” — the ability to give a joke the right amount of space and explanation, relative to its importance: in this case, very little. Too often in self-conscious pomo cartoons (think SHREK or some other Dreamworks titles), the humor relies on, or just IS, movie or pop-culture in-jokes.
But wait. Hold on. I’m describing details of UP without mentioning the most important point about it — its fawesomeness. By now, that hardly needs saying about the latest Pixar. I expect UP to be the best commercial American film of the year and hopefully, the expansion of the Best Picture field to 10 films will grab that first Oscar nod for the best American studio now working.³ Every easy characterization pitfall, Pixar manages to avoid — the precocious kid is not the fount of all wisdom, the elderly man isn’t pushed into Grampa Simpson or Clint Eastwood yelling “get off my lawn,” etc. UP is also thrilling and unending fun — the dogs are among the convincing animal personifications thanks to a comic device that both explains how they can talk and sets up two of the best jokes in the movie (one involving a single word, the other involving the variable voices). For Pixar’s first movie that is basically set in a world of humans, it allows speech-personification without turning the dogs into four-legged hairy men. Indeed wonder if the writers were familiar with Jonah Goldberg’s writings about his pet, Cosmo the Wonder Dog (here interviewing the Prime Minister of Pakistan).
¹ I was unusual in knowing at 10 that my dream wasn’t even possible (one reason I kept it to myself even then).
² Admittedly, in a 1941 movie, the audience would be familiar with the thing being parodied and so wouldn’t need an explanation. Pixar folks know their audience isn’t, and does. Indeed, I saw the CITIZEN KANE “News on the March” parody before I saw an actual “Time Marches On” newsreel, as I suspect is the case for most people not drawing Social Security.
³ Really though, Pixar is the only current American studio, in the sense of having a distinct corporate identity and an identifiable product style, like you can meaningfully talk about Universal in the 50s, MGM in the 40s, Warner Brothers in the 30s, etc.).