Tuesday, 20 July 2010

“It’s Only A House”: Revisiting Up

Whenever it comes to Pixar I inevitably end up feeling like some curmudgeon because I don’t ever feel the usual glee that most identify with their incarnations. Finding Nemo remains as there "magnum opus", though I don't consider it flawless. Ratatouille was diverting enjoyable but not quite transcendental, WALL-E left me feeling oddly cold and Up….oh, well, Up’s a whole other story. Herein lies the review, you did ask for it.
I never tried reviewing Up. I graded it and subsequently attempted to expunge it from my mind. That proved a little difficult (what with its Best Picture nomination and what not) but I digress. An old man is on his own for the first time in a very long time when his wife of forever (it seems) dies. He experiences a case of arrested development when he vows to Journey to South America, a promise he made to his deceased wife when they were children. A cloying young boy inadvertently tags along for the ride and as Carl’s house goes up, up and away with the help of his helium balloons an adventure looms.
I gave Up a tentative B upon first seeing it, and re-watching it with my nephew who LOVED it I liked it less. What makes me even more dispirited is that finding the precise thing that I find off is much more difficult than I anticipated. It's exasperating. Praise was particularly effusive for the opening of Up, a ten minute short film in itself, showing us the life of Carl and Ellie. I’m not so hardhearted that I found it unmoving – the poignancy was striking. Yet, I felt a little emotionally manipulated. No one can help feeling sad at the death of a loved one, but in addition to asking us to feel for a character we’ve met for ten minutes (and learned little of, despite the emphasis on detail). However, it's not this that annoys me as much as there is nothing that occurs subsequently that is as honestly emotive.  It's not that the subsequent focus on action doesn't make for a good time, but Up seems intent on having the best of both worlds; and with a battle between two worlds one eventually will prove victorious.
Ellie’s departure from the world – childless – is meant to be replaced with the arc of Russell, a somewhat annoying, and rather silly child who becomes an accidental tourist along with Carl. I hate to rag on Up by bringing up my favourite animated film of the last year, but Russell "annoyingness" seems almost on par with the similarly bothersome Wybie in Coraline. Unlike Wybie, Russell represents a significant part of the story – this is a problem. Other than a few rare instances, I don’t get overexcited by cinematic children. They’re either too annoying to be lovable or too lovable to be realistic. Russell is an animated character, but he retains the same amount of irritating talkativeness that makes me feel just a bit (just a bit guilty) for sounding like a hermit.This is the portion where I feel the urge to shout "Eureka!"
It’s on that note that I make a striking realisation. I’m more moved by the reclusive Carl of the first hour than the changed man he becomes. Perhaps my occasional misanthropic ways are showing out, but when a certain important climax of Up occurs I find myself unmoved, even a little put-out, by the message it sends. It's the "a-ha" moment where I think, "No, this is not for me." This is odd, because the message it’s sending is quite positive. For the duration of the story Carl has had an obsessive love with his house that’s almost disconcerting. Over time, though, his obsession becomes moving. Moreover, his love is understandable. This is the house he shared with his dream girl. It is just a house, perhaps, but it’s an important house of sentimental value. Thus, Carl’s impassioned declaration of “It’s just a house” after giving up all in it to save the bird and the boy doesn’t resonate with me as much as I think Docter and Peterson’s expect it to. By having Carl inevitably come to appreciate his companion and renounce his past ideals Up falls into the same trap as countless other pieces - a man changed not by desire, but a wearing down of nerves over time. And why should he have to change? The message I end up receiving is the same one that the seemingly antagonistic community were forcing down his throat from the beginning - get a life. It's a superficial thing, perhaps, but can't we allow Carl to be content alone with his house and his memories?
Moreover, the destruction of the inevitable villains falls rather flat. Each animated film must have a villain (The Other Mother, The Shadow Man etc) but though Up is more a story of a man’s growth  (well, ostensibly, at least) than one of good vs evil– the de facto villain irks me. The parallels between Charles and Carl are not slight. Both men are devoted to doing things they’ve vowed after many years and it seems insensitive that in trying to show a moving portrayal of an older man Charles must be villainous because he life dream’s are in combat with our heroines. I'm hardpressed to find anything inherently villainous about him. Like Docter's judgement that Carl needs to let go, he thinks that Charles should too. Sure, he’s overly manic and his treatment of animals is questionable at best, but in deciding on the inevitable “Death to villain” end Up misses the chance for poignancy that’s too obvious to miss. Must Charles be relegated to villainous proportions because the world has forced him to prove himself?
Perhaps, in my predilection for subtext I'm overanalysing it because technically Up is a beauty. Along with Coraline and The Fantastic Mr. Fox the attention paid to character movement and set design is astonshing. I found myself entranced for a few minutes staring at Carl's hair, it was all so lifelike. Up is a perfectly competent animated film. But, I'm a glutton. I wanted better.
Hmmmm, you did ask for me to review it – though, I know now I held off from reviewing up because I actually DON’T like raining on parades. If my bad words have left you sad, visit my blogging buddies for kinder words.

Yojimbo praises its creativity and thoughtfulness
CS offers one of the few mixed pieces, though his issues with it are not mine
Univarn appreciates it for tackling a difficult subject with charm
Mad Hatter talks about the endurance of the love connection (that sounds dirty)
Fitz loves the depth of the character and the emotive nature of it all.
Heather loves its ability to be escapism while still relishing in life’s reality.


Luke said...

You raise some excellent points, I suppose... As you probably remember, it was my favorite film of last year. I think where you tended to dislike the film, I liked it more. Call me sentimental I guess... You mention some very convincing detractors though - which is exactly what a review should do anyway!

Darren said...

Thanks for the link.

You do raise some valid points, but I just can't resist Pixar's charms. It actually reminds me of Disney at their best, with that rake of classic family films in the forties. Sure, if we look closely, we'll find flaws and one or two unfortunate implications, but I think they speak to us on such a basic level that we overlook them.

Great review, and I don't think you "rained" on anybody's parade. You made valid points you backed up.

TomS said...

I reviewed it last March...what I loved most about it was the loony accuracy with which dogs are depicted, and given voice.
Also there were several quiet moments when we were able to contemplate with Carl just what his life had become, and what had brought him to where he was, and how would he get out of it all. it's funny, but your reactions to "Up" are very much like my feelings about "Toy Story 3".

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

luke i remember you loved it, i was actually searching for your review - but then i remembered you don't review stuff (what happened to the other site?)

darren i suppose the disney comparisons are valid, they were noted for often having some strange inconsistencies (plot wise)

tom i don't LOVE either, but i prefer this to toy story iii.