Another April 2010 film review.
Here's my first reaction to Up: Bloody Hell.
Pixar films seem to be rooted in death. Nemo's entire family dies in the first few minutes of his film. Wall-E starts with Earth empty and barren. The Incredibles' narrative is powered by an attempted suicide and a mostly successful murder-spree.
They aren't morbid. The characters in these films are surrounded by the grimy, vicious facts of life (the pressures of commercialism and control of social norms in Ratatouille, the necessity of change and ageing in the Toy Story films), and death is one of those facts. It's the nasty grittiness of being human that constitutes the real enemy in these films. But the films show that it can be defeated with love and imagination. And they wrap up their ugliness in bright colours: talking fish, happy robots, and bouncing superheroes mean that all the grot of reality is never thrust in your face. Everything is packaged comfortably (but not tritely) for a family audience.
In Up, Pixar get rid of the metaphor. The main character is a lonely widower – the death of his wife has made his life empty. We see his dull daily routine, his fear of the outside world (faceless developers want to purchase and demolish his house), and the apparent inevitably of leaving his home for an unseen nursing home full of uncaring staff.
This is – undisguised and unrepentant – a film about ageing and grieving. You know, for kids.
Of course, depressing social realism isn't Pixar's style. And it isn't the style of this either. After around twenty minutes of real life, enthusiastic escapist whimsy takes hold, and a plot unfolds that resembles a cross between Indiana Jones and the fever dreams of a six year old. The design department were clearly unconstrained here: with its smooth 1930s airships, flying houses, and vast wild vistas, there's a gloriously mad enthusiasm to the imagery on display. But despite the whimsy, the film never lets go of its emotional core. Big chunky metaphors get deployed: that the protagonist spends some time carrying a house on his back is a none-too-subtle reminder that we're dealing with a man who can't shake off his past. But more important than its symbolic weight is the consistency and originality of character: the central point in the frenzied adventuring is a tired and irritable old man.
There are problems with it. Deep, irritating problems. Essentially, whimsical fantasies about grieving widowers are unlikely to play well to the pre-school demographic. And whether or not you've got a genius-level premise and brain-burstingly astonishing imagery, a Pixar movie that doesn't appeal to young kids isn't going to get made. So we have redundant chase scenes, a nauseatingly cute talking dog, and jokes about how disgusting saliva is. While Ratatouille and The Incredibles managed to appeal to every age-group, this like an inferior movie has been unceremoniously bolted onto the side of a work of genius. It lacks a unity of style, and doesn't remain true to its best ideas.
To be honest, I don't really care. The audacity of the concept is startling enough. The sheer, tear-inducing beauty of its best moments blasts away any other reservations. The thing is so ambitious that its no surprise if it falls down at times, but as a grand experiment testing the boundaries of mainstream animated film, it is an astonishing success.