Up: This Time, Pixar Has Gone Too Far
The latest Pixar film Up is being received as if it were better than the Second Coming. It represents the Pixar team’s effort to be even more lugubrious than in their last animated film -- more lugubrious than in their last five animated films -- hell, more lugubrious than their personal god Walt Disney ever dreamed of being in his thirty years of lugubrious filmmaking. It’s a high-stakes game: we’ll see your Jiminy Cricket and raise you five Pollyannas, says Pixar. We’ll throw in ten-thousand dalmations and the ghost of Old Yeller. We’ll stuff you with sunbeams, choke you with hugs, smother you with the warm chuckles of reformed curmudgeons, waterboard you with the gushing tears of a million pathetic orphans.
The public loves this, it goes without saying. But the critics have gotten so besotted they’re egging Pixar on to dangerously high glucose levels.
Kissy reviews for Pixar go all the way back to their short film experiments that used to run at film festivals. They seemed harmless enough in those days; it was fun to root for the underdogs, computer animation geeks with offices in Emeryville, CA, then a blank nowheresville between freeways in the Bay Area. As they went along making hit films one after another -- Toy Story I and II, Monsters, Inc, Finding Nemo, Cars, The Incredibles, Ratatouille -- there was no denying that they had the craft down; they could animate the hell out of a film. Gorgeous-looking, all of it, in a rounded glossy computery way. Preachy, sure, but then so are most things aimed at suffering children, and in their best films there was enough humor to counteract a lot of it. If the Pixar sensibility seemed strangely locked in to a mid-20th century mindset, a kind of ‘50s-forever-world no matter what the movie’s time-frame might be, well, they made it clear they intended to inherit the Disney mantle, didn’t they?
Many, many Academy Awards later, the unanimous song of critical praise reached a painful crescendo with Wall-E, which was heralded by assorted buffoons as Chaplinesque in its divine pathos. That was the red alert.
Any time a critic calls something "Chaplinesque," run. Because what they mean by this is so ghastly you don’t want to risk scarring your lobes absorbing it. It was Charlie Chaplin’s own downfall in his later career, becoming "Chaplinesque." He was funny as hell, I assure you, till critics started mooning over his balletic grace and tragic "little man" pathos. Then he started milking it. Brilliant guy (though a right bastard according to most accounts, and far too inclined to impregnate underage girls), but he couldn’t resist the ever bigger and wetter close-ups of his own yearning face.
It’s a terrible disservice to Chaplin’s legacy that most people think of him clutching a flower against his teeth and gazing wistfully just off-screen, the famous final shot of City Lights. They forget that Chaplin earned that final shot with many preceding scenes -- a whole career, really -- of brutal, insightful comedy. They forget that early Chaplin was more dedicated to kicking the ass of the oppressor than to any other project beyond sheer survival.
And why do they forget? Because the aging Chaplin himself sold it so hard, the tragedy, the tears, the "significance."
Chaplin once expressed the desire to play the role of Jesus Christ on film, and he wasn’t kidding, either.
Anyhoo, Pixar’s Wall-E is Chaplinesque in the worst way. Heart-tugging little robot with big eye-like lenses, working all alone on the giant junkyard of future Earth, tilting his head quizzically, persevering pluckily, miming out all his yearnings with beeps and hoots and no dialogue. And that’s the GOOD part of the film! After that it gets really stupid and sentimental!
Up starts off with chunks of wordless bathos, presumably to remind you how great Wall-E was. I’ll let Manohla Dargis of the New York Times tell it:
The movie opens with the young Carl enthusing over black-and-white newsreel images of his hero, a world-famous aviator and explorer, Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). Shortly thereafter, Carl meets Ellie, a plucky, would-be adventurer who, a few edits later, becomes his beloved wife, an adult relationship that the director Pete Docter brilliantly compresses into some four wordless minutes during which the couple dream together, face crushing disappointment and grow happily old side by side. Like the opener of "Wall-E"… this is filmmaking at its purest.
The absence of words suggests that Mr. Docter and the co-director Bob Peterson, with whom he wrote the screenplay, are looking back to the silent era, as Andrew Stanton did with the Chaplinesque start to "Wall-E."
(Another word of advice: when somebody tells you it’s "filmmaking at its purest," hit the exit. Impure cinema is the kind you want.)
I don’t think I’m giving much away by telling you they kill off Ellie. And there you are, maybe fifteen minutes into the film, with the tragedy of old man Carl (Ed Asner), who’s only crabby because he’s bereft.
By this point, adults all around the theater are snuffling. Their feral kids, oppressed by the tearful mood, start babbling uneasily. And you realize, to your horror, that now the film will have to TOP this pity party. There are masses of objects associated with the dead wife that will have to "pay off" again and again for increasingly sobby effect -- her "Adventurer" scrapbook with its tragically empty pages, her bird knickknack she put on the mantle, her chair, photos of her, the house itself. Plus Carl’s cross-my-heart promise to her to have adventures in South America will have to be milked over and over, and his crustiness will have to be softened by that chubby kid in the previews.
And don’t think for a second they’ll stop in their tear-jerking efforts with the chubby kid, who’s got no mother to love him, only an absentee dad. Oh, no. Pixar hedges its bets by adding a cute dog who’s rejected by his dog pack. And a large endangered-species bird, which gets injured and hobbles pitifully. And baby birds. And a beautiful golden-haired blind girl who sells flowers … no, I’m only kidding about her. That’s Chaplin again.
Truthfully, it was only the bird and the dog that saved me from bolting out of the theater. They rated some laughs.
So Carl rigs up his house with a million helium balloons and he and the kid fly off and have adventures and somehow you’d think this might add up to interesting 3-D effects. Sadly, no. (That’s a pretty good political humor site, by the way, Sadly, No! You should check it out.) There’s no point seeing this film in 3-D at all. In fact, the 3-D shades dim the film’s colors, so that’s a positive reason to watch it flat if you’re going to watch it at all.
Pisses me off that Coraline is going to lose the Best Animated Film Oscar to this thing.