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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Down

Well, everybody has to jump the shark sometime, right? The A-Team had Stockwell, MASH had Alan Alda as a director, Firefly had the entire fourth disc (The last four episodes have their moments, but let’s be honest: They’re not anywhere near as well written as the episodes on the previous discs. The Bounty Hunter and the Brothel villains were so 2 dimensional you could use them to split atoms and not initiate a nuclear event.).

And Pixar has Up. WARNING: THE FOLLOWING WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS.

Savvy credit-watchers will note that Up does not boast the involvement of John Lasseter at all, and Andrew Stanton or Brad Bird except in the role of “Executive Producers.” “Executive Producer” is a Hollywood term that means “I’ll give you some money and take the credit for your success, but I’m not doing any work.”

This is understandable. Lasseter, Stanton and Bird have been practically living in the studio since Toy Story. They have families, and they’ve made a pile of money. I don’t blame them one bit for wanting to spend more time with their kids. Unfortunately, like Jim Henson’s death, they took all the magic with them and what remained was only someone trying desperately to imitate what was uniquely inimitable.

Like all Pixar movies, Up is technically impressive. The visuals are stunning in some places, and the animation is exquisite (whoever researched the dogs earned his money.) Unlike Pixar movies, however, the writing leans too heavily on sight gags and shies away from character exploration almost entirely. It’s like a Dreamworks movie got lost and Pixar kidnapped it. (Hey-yoh!)

There are a lot of things wrong with the movie, but I think the fundamental problem is the lack of empathy. Every other Pixar movie has been the manifestation of some passion or affection that men like John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton or Brad Bird had for something. Toys and Finding Nemo were about their kids. Cars was about their parents. Ratatouille was about their own passion for creation. No matter what the movie, either Bird or Stanton (or both) were speaking through the main characters. It’s why the movies were so good, why the characters rang so true. They were honest.

The creative heads behind Up not only fail to empathize with the main character, they don’t even seem to like him at all. Let’s have a look at what happens to the main character through the course of the movie.

1) He meets the love of his life in a decrepit, run-down old house, and falls through the ceiling and breaks his arm. (They later buy the house and fix it up as a married couple)
2) He marries the love of his life, and they attempt to have children but an apparent miscarriage leaves her barren. (I say “apparent” because that scene is part of a musical montage of their relationship that takes up about 10 minutes of the first reel.)
3) During the musical montage, they decide to follow their childhood dreams by setting up a savings jar to go exploring, but on three occasions, they have to use the money in the savings jar to pay for emergencies.
4) During the musical montage, the main character buys plane tickets to the Amazon so they can fulfill their dreams of being explorers in their retirement.
5) But before he can present the tickets to her, she has a heart attack and dies. During the musical montage.
6) The neighborhood around the house he and his wife rebuilt from the ground has gone commercial. Surrounded by glass and steel monoliths, he is the last holdout and won’t sell to the developer.
7) A construction worker backs over his mailbox, which he and his wife hand painted during the musical montage, and though well meaning won’t let the old man repair it himself.
8) The old man gets evicted from his house after hitting the construction worker who wouldn’t let him have his mailbox over the head with his cane.
9) The old man flies his house to the Amazon, following the footsteps of the childhood hero he and his wife shared, and the reason why they wanted to explore the amazon in the first place.
10) Only it turns out that his childhood hero is a homicidal lunatic who sets his house on fire and subsequently tries to kill him.
So in the course of the movie, he loses his wife, his house, and his childhood hero. But it’s all okay because he helped a small, annoying kid rescue a large, annoying bird.

Furthermore, nobody in the movie listens to the main character or seems to care about him at all. The land developers won’t listen to him. The guys from the old folk’s home won’t listen to him. The annoying kid that accidentally tagged along on the trip to the Amazon won’t listen to him. His childhood hero won’t listen to him. The talking dog, who is the lone bright spot in the movie, won’t listen to him. The only person in the movie who gave a rat’s rear end what the main character thought about anything was killed off in the first ten minutes.

His character isn’t even well written. When we initially meet him, he’s shy. Almost timid. Under his wife’s influence, he’s happy. But after her death, he turns into cranky old coot stereotype number 7, Asner variant. Sure, his house is surrounded by skyscrapers and construction workers, but his transformation from mousey balloon vendor to crusty old fart is so sudden that I can’t help but wonder if the only contact the writers had with old people came from watching Abe Vigoda and Wolford Brimley movies. Memo to Pixar: Not every old person living alone is perpetually cranky.

And he’s not the only character who’s taken directly from the Saturday Morning TV School of Character Stereotypes. The other primary character is a chubby boy scout who is seeking his “helping the elderly” merit badge. He’s your standard annoying, wise-beyond-his-years preadolescent whose innocence will show the old man the error of his ways. At one point, the kid is talking about his estranged father (Aww! He lacks a father figure. And look! The main character lacks a son! I wonder where this is going…) he remarks that what he really remembers is the little, boring, everyday stuff that he did get to do, not the big, important stuff that he didn’t. That thud you hear is the message being delivered like a sack of tainted meat into a dumpster. Pardon me while I gag myself with a screwdriver.

The villains aren’t particularly fleshed out either. The land developer has no dialog, and exists primarily as a man with a cell phone who stands in for corporate soullessness (lessness… lessness… lessness.) I won’t harp on him, because he’s not really supposed to be a fleshed out villain, though I will point out that Pixar has done the Corporate Villain so much better in both Monster’s Inc and The Incredibles.

The other villain, which you could see coming from the start of the movie if you pay close enough attention, is the main character’s childhood hero. A celebrated explorer, he is disgraced when scientists dispute his findings of a seven foot tall bird that roams the remotest regions of the Amazon rainforest. He sets out for the rainforest, vowing to return only when he has positive proof that he’s not a liar. When we find him next, he is not merely bitter at his mistreatment at the hands of the press, but downright bat-guano insane. It is strongly intimated that he murdered any explorer/archaeologist/botanist who he ever encountered in the rainforest because he suspected them of trying to capture his bird and steal his glory.

The main problem with the villain is that the writers think that “bat-guano-insane” is a substitute for personality. Every other villain in a Pixar movie has had human motivations, and has been sympathetic to some degree. Even the Aussie dentist in Finding Nemo was more clueless than evil. This guy is just completely inhuman, and not in the “I believe what I was programmed to believe” way that the Wheel was in Wall-E. He’s just… one-dimensional. It’s like someone said “Oh, let’s just make him a hunter who kills people. That’s good enough, right?” and everyone just nodded.

The one character, or group of characters, that are well written and fully realized are the dogs. The villain has an enormous pack of dogs at his command, and he has outfitted them with collars that translate their thoughts into English. This opens up the inevitable “I would like that ball!” and “SQUIRREL!” jokes that actually work. They’re the only thing in the movie that does.

I’d be more willing to forgive the cardboard characters if the rest of the movie wasn’t taken whole cloth from the cliché factory as well. The whole denouement is so laughably derivative I would accuse it of being brilliant parody if they weren’t taking themselves so seriously. The villain sets the main character’s house on fire as a distraction, because the main character is defending the large bird. Seeing his whole life go up in flames, the old man rushes to extinguish the flames, leaving the villain open to waltz off with the bird. How the main character was supposed to stop the villain, who at the time was flanked by his army of vicious dogs and carrying a rifle that acts like a shotgun, isn’t discussed. But the annoying kid is very disappointed at the main character for just letting the bird go.

After the kid yells at the old man for acting like a human being instead of some paragon of selfless giving (+1), the old man reverts to full on grouch mode and takes his house to finish what he set out to do in the first place. And he does it, by jiminy. The house sets down right where he and his wife planned to build their retirement home.

But it’s all hollow. We know this, because as he puts the furniture back where it belongs and rehangs the pictures on the walls the score plays sad music, and the color scheme is just slightly muted, even the photograph of his wife seems to look down on him in disappointment. All that was missing was him looking at a mirror with a melancholy expression, only to turn away in disgust at what he had become. And quite frankly, I’m not altogether certain he didn’t. By this point in the movie my eyes were rolling so much I’m sure I missed some things.

When the kid shows up and steals some balloons so he can chase after the bird himself, the main character finally “gets it.” He expunges the house of everything inside, so the withering balloons could lift what remained skyward once more. The last we see of the furniture, as the house flies away, is his chair sitting neatly next to his wife’s chair on the ground as the triumphal music swells and eggs the old man onward and upward. (Yeah! You dump that old crappy symbol of the life you had with your wife. Forget her, it’s time to go save some kid you don’t know and a bird you don’t like!) He chases after the villain, who has captured the annoying child and left him tied to a chair and ready to drop from the loading dock of his blimp to the ground so many thousands of feet below. The villain and the main character have a climactic battle that employs a clumsy version of the “I threw my back out” joke that was so much better in The Incredibles. See, it’s funny because they’re both so old. Also old people smell like prunes.

Seriously. That’s how the dogs find him as he sneaks aboard the villain’s airship. They smell prunes. They couldn’t even spare the cash for some additional syllables and use the word “liniment.”

Needless to say, the kid is rescued. The villain was dispatched through the use of a high-fall the likes of which I haven’t seen since I watched every movie that ever came out between 1985 and 1999.

Finally, we’re treated to a scene where the annoying kids finally gets his helping the elderly merit badge, with the main character standing by his side because the kid’s father couldn’t be there (all together now: Awwww!) and then they go share ice cream and count different color cars, just like the kid used to do with his dad (and again: Awwwwww!) and apparently the court order remanding the old man to a home has been rescinded, or at least it’s unenforceable because he now lives in the villain’s airship.

Oh, and just to throw a bone to those of us who understood why it was important to the main character to keep a promise he made to his wife so many years ago, the last we see of the house, it just happened to land right where he wanted to put it. What a coincidence.

I suppose Up was an accurate enough title for the movie, given the infatuation with flight. But if they wanted to make it more accurate and a whole lot more descriptive they would have called it “Trite.”

That’s not something I ever thought I’d be able to say about a Pixar movie. Usually they come right up to the edge of being trite without actually falling off the precipice. This one just points the car at the edge of the cliff and lays down rubber.

I have more complaints, like about how this movie is a violent departure from Pixar’s classical themes about how nostalgia is a good and fundamentally human emotion, and the fact that it’s not only okay, but admirable that people have attachments to physical objects. Heck, if the people who made Up had done Cars, the residents of Radiator Springs would just pack up and move to California, because it’s just a road, right? Move on.

But I’m running long, so I won’t. In conclusion, I just want to say that I will no longer buy a Pixar movie on DVD just because Pixar did it. It was my last vestige of fanboy mentality, and Up snuffed it out. I don’t know whether I should be angry or grateful.