Pixar rules pop media like nothing since mid-20th century General Motors held sway as the preeminent American corporation (and the bane of grassroots individualism). Every Pixar film—including the new Up, gushed over by Cannes Film Festival shills—is greeted with nearly patriotic fervor. This absurdity clarifies contemporary news media’s unprincipled collusion with Hollywood capitalism.
Up’s uninteresting story of an old widower who attaches his home to helium balloons and floats off to Venezuela with an overeager kid in tow follows the same formula as the previous nine Pixar movies. But artistic standards get trumped by a special feature: sentimentality. Pixar’s price sticker includes enough saccharine emotion to distract some viewers from being more demanding; they don’t mind the blatant narrative manipulation of a sad old man and lonely little boy. They buy animation to extend their childhood like men who buy cars for phallic symbols.
As a child, Carl Fredrickson, already a young fogey, thrilled to the airborne adventures of daredevil explorer C.J. Muntz. But in retirement, Fredrickson sulks; mischief deeply buried beneath blandness. Carl’s not an irascible audience-surrogate like the urban curmudgeon Mr. Magoo. Only Russell, the pie-faced, father-abandoned, 8-year-old scout, is cuter. “Cute” is how Pixar oversimplifies the world.
Even the montage showing Carl’s marriage to childhood sweetheart Ellie (their wedding, companionship, childlessness, then Ellie’s illness and death), is over-sentimentalized. This silent interlude is no more daring than the utterly conventional Wall-E: It concludes with Carl, alone, holding a blue balloon at Ellie’s funeral. Sheesh. Although Chaplinesque music underscores these maudlin scenes, they’re not emotionally pure like Chaplin; they preen. Critics who forget that movies should be about people defend this reduction of human experience.
When Up trivializes Carl and Russell’s loneliness—treating it to the same Journey/Rescue/Return blueprint as Finding Nemo, Cars, Wall-E, Monsters, Inc., A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 1 and 2—the predictability becomes cloying. And the inevitable shift to anthropomorphism—Carl and Russell float to South America, encountering a prehistoric bird and mysteriously “talking” dogs—is very nearly depressing. Almost as depressing as Wall-E. Despite some imaginative imagery (gray-blue night storms, dark yet vivid jungle scenes, compositional values J.J. Abrams knows nothing about), Up drops its emotional elements for chase mechanics and precious comedy. This way, Pixar disgraces and delimits the animated film as a mushy, silly pop form.
Pixarism defines the backward taste for animation. Refuting Chuck Jones’ insistence that he didn’t create his great Warner Bros. cartoon for children, Pixarism domesticates and homogenizes animation—as if to preserve family values. The only exceptions have been Brad Bird’s Pixar movies The Incredibles and Ratatouille—both sumptuously executed in Bird’s belief that animation should show “how things feel rather than are. Indulging in the human aspect of being alive.” Yet their conceptual weak point was cuteness—same as Up’s glossing over Carl’s “public menace” court conviction and that inconsistently imagined dog pack.
After ripping-off Albert Lamorisse’s classic The Red Balloon, dispersing it into Carl’s thousands of colorful orbs, Pixar then literalizes the meaning of flight as a commercial icon: Up. Here, it’s simply the means to “adventures” and not an ecstatic elevation of individual identity. Last year, elitist film nerds forgot how Hou Hsiao Hsien’s Flight of the Red Balloon also dishonored Lamorisse’s beautiful tale—as they cynically overrated the entropic Wall-E. All this deflated cinema and Pixarism mischaracterizes what good animation can be, as in Coraline, Monster House, Chicken Little, Teacher’s Pet, The Iron Giant. Up’s aesthetic failure stems from its emotional letdown.
Directed by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson
Runtime: 96 min.
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