What goes UP…

…must come down.
And Pixar’s latest movie barely gets afloat before it crashes.

Image © Pixar Animation Studios/Walt Disney Pictures

I just got around to seeing UP; and despite the flood of reviews surrounding the film’s release, I made it a point not to read any. Here are my thoughts, fresh and unfiltered (some spoilers below).

Forced Emotions

Many friends who saw the movie had reported how it tugged at their heartstrings, or made them cry. Honestly, I can’t see why. I know audience reaction is pretty subjective, but I didn’t even come close to feeling anything like it. I did feel like I was being told how I should feel. The montage of Carl and Ellie’s life together is a clever piece of silent storytelling, and it might have evoked emotions in me if I had cared about the characters, but at that early point in the film, I didn’t (more on that later). The montage itself felt heavy-handed, and made me long for the more evocative storytelling in Kunio Kato’s “House of Small Cubes”, which had a somewhat similar sequence, but with a gentler touch that involved the audience’s imagination more.

Even the big turning point in Carl’s attitude upon reaching Paradise Falls felt too convenient. The conflict just didn’t feel strong enough. It might have been something if he actually struggled with his dilemma and gave up on going to Paradise Falls in order to save Kevin. At least we’d see him make a tough emotional decision, and maybe we’d feel more involved. Given Pixar’s past record of taking the audience on an emotional ride, the emotional changes in this film felt too sudden, almost forced, and I felt like a distant observer of somebody’s story unfolding. A big part of this was because I didn’t feel for the characters, which brings me to:

Shallow Characters

Charles Muntz is possibly the weakest villain I’ve seen of late, and his talking dogs seem almost pointless. But more significantly:

Who’s the most important character in this movie? Not Carl, but Ellie, whose memory motivates Carl to take his journey. No Ellie = no journey to Paradise Falls. We’re constantly reminded of how much she means to Carl even after her passing; yet, for such an important character, we know precious little about her! Too little to really care; and if we don’t care about her, we just have to take for granted what the filmmakers tell us about Carl’s devotion to her. That weakened my bond with Carl, the protagonist. Bye-bye, empathy.

Ellie’s bland design makes it worse. At least we have enough visual cues in Carl’s design to understand him quickly. Ellie doesn’t even have that going for her. With a generic design like that, she’d need a few more meaningful scenes to have the emotional thrust needed for this plot to take off.

Plot holes

Okay, I know Pixar’s earlier films aren’t perfectly plotted either, but at least their tight pacing and more endearing characters made us overlook their narrative flaws. This movie had neither, so I was left staring at some giant holes one could fly a Zeppelin through. I leave it up to you to find them, if you’re interested.

There were some good ideas here; they aren’t supported by a strong storyline though. Reminds me of this image (thanks for the tweet, Keith).

Nice lighting!

Hey, at least I liked something. Great job on the clouds, and the light filtering through the balloons. Dreamy.

Why Animation?

All right, may be you can help me on this one. Is there any reason this story had to be told through animation? Wouldn’t live action with VFX do the trick? They wouldn’t even need to animate the mouths on the dogs; the talking collar gimmick would have saved them a ton of money!
Please let me know in the comments if you can think of any good reason.

Do I sense a pattern?

Am I the only one who’s getting tired of the “Exposition through newsreel/tv footage” idea in Pixar’s films? I think it may have started with “The Incredibles” (correct me if I’m wrong), but “Ratatouille” had it, “Wall-E” had a variation of it, and “Up” begins with a newsreel too.

At what point does a studio start to see the patterns they’ve set themselves into?

Parting thoughts

I have to say, I enjoyed “Partly Cloudy”, the short that played with “Up”. It’s simple and to-the-point. Though it’s set in the clouds, it feels fairly anchored and balanced. “Up”, on the other hand, feels like a balloon aimlessly drifting away on the whims of too many ideas.


6 responses to “What goes UP…

  1. I quite agree with most of these points. The movie did not grip me throughout since I barely connected with the main characters. The only character I really really liked was dug.. his actions were so adorable and dog-like in contrast to the other dogs that were flying planes, serving food and drinks and dusting statues. (I thought that part was overdone.)

    Even some of the gags felt so expected like the big dog’s squeaky voice. Too many complaints about the dogs, but I felt put off with that. I was disappointed with the story and characters.

    I definitely liked the visuals though – bright and colorful!

    Most of the people I know who went to watch the movie loved it. I felt otherwise. I really hope Pixar doesn’t end up like other studios trying to come up with obvious gags and cliches, and losing out on a good story.

  2. There seems to be an internal struggle at Pixar (and other feature animation studios) about how cartoony vs. realistic the film should be. Many of the issues with today’s features can be traced to the fact that no one has a clear idea of where to take this medium next.

  3. I felt divided with this film. Most of your points are how I felt about the second half of the movie, but not the first half. Like most people, I DID connect with Ellie and Carl in the first half. I think we got enough of Ellie in the beginning to understand why Carl had such a connection with her, and I think that if the movie had focused anymore on who she was as a character, it would have derailed the film and the focus would have shifted too heavily on her. I thought (especially as a child) she was “fun” enough to where we GET it. Her outgoing and playful nature is immediately going to make us connect with her, and it worked on me. I very much disagree about the beginning sequences feeling forced.
    I very much agree with how you feel toward Muntz and the dogs. I completely understand the need to have a source of gags, it’s what keeps the family-friendly atmosphere and it keeps people entertained. I think the problem with the dog-gags was that they were just corny and bland. The dogs and Muntz were really there to fill the “villain” role, and I didn’t care at all about them.
    The beginning montage WAS a bit heavy handed, but I’m not sure I can fault them for it because…well….it WORKED on the majority of the people that saw it. I feel like if they watered it down with subtlety, a bigger percentage of the target audience wouldn’t have the sensitivity or patience to feel what they’re supposed to feel.

    Anyway, just felt the need to respond. Hope I didn’t rant too much.

  4. Thanks for commenting, Danny! It’s good to hear differing opinions.

    I think I’m getting old and cynical. Anyway, here’s a question for anyone who’s reading this:

    Does the *medium* of storytelling affect the audience’s expectations from the story?

    In other words, if UP had been a live-action film with the same exact script and storyboard, would your opinion of the story be any different?

  5. Animation definitely lets you get away with heavy handedness. People expect more complexity, depth, and subtlety when it comes to animation. A lack of these things is forgiven in animation, by most people. People got to the theater EXPECTING to have everything dumbed-down in animation, and that’s why they have such a strong positive reaction when they don’t get a sense of condescension.

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