Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Pixar for Grownups

The animated film, Up, had somehow completely slipped past my radar when it was released in 2009. As much as I now regret missing it on the big screen, it's unlikely I would have made the effort to see it in a theater. I mean, it's just a cartoon, right? Instead, I watched the DVD last night, and it was so good it inspired me to wake my blog up to write about it. As my title suggests, I consider this to be the first Pixar film and one of the rare animated films created for grownups rather than for kids. I don't suggest that previous Pixar films and many other made-for-children animated movies can't be appreciated by adults, just that this may be one movie not particularly appreciated by kids.

The plot synopsis from IMDB is simple enough: By tying thousands of balloon to his home, 78-year-old Carl Fredricksen sets out to fulfill his lifelong dream to see the wilds of South America. Frankly, that didn't inspire me much at all and it doesn't begin to capture the beauty of the story created by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson and Thomas McCarthy. The first 15-20 minutes of the film, beginning in familiar territory with a small boy becoming captivated by a heroic explorer then moves through a montage of Carl's life that stands as a brilliant gem of animation all by itself. Beautiful and emotionally rich, that montage had me so choked up and damp-eyed I took a break from the DVD.

And then Pixar went into completely unfamiliar (forbidden?) territory: the protagonist is an old man! A really old guy, who creaks and groans just getting from bed to front porch, and who needs a walker to get anywhere. And what I love most is that the writers avoided the most obvious cliches to set up the adventure, because Carl is not a cranky, bitter old goat looking back on an empty life devoid of meaning or moment, ripe for redemption and enlightenment, but a 78-year-old man who has lived an emotionally full and joyous life. Well, he is a bit cranky, but I can relate.

The remainder of the film is "just" the usual gorgeous Pixar animation. The tone changes dramatically, with plenty of adventure and humor. You have to have great animals in a film like this, of course, and Up has several, including a (naturally) lovable dog named Dug, and funny bits for people who know dogs. Squirrel!

When recommending the film elsewhere, I wrote something like "While it's not the greatest animated film ever..." which then begs the question, what is the greatest animated film ever? And that turned out not to have a simple answer. When I was a child, I saw Fantasia in the theater and it lodged itself in my consciousness forever. According to Wikipedia, I saw it in SuperScope and stereo. Although it was a money-loser in early releases, Fantasia set the bar for animation pretty high. So had Snow White & the Seven Dwarves, Pinocchio and Dumbo. These movies were beautiful, amazing stories brought to life by thousands of hours of painstaking work. I cannot imagine there is any dispute that they are at or near the top of any list (and here, I have to admit a gaping hole in my own viewing: Japanese animated films).

I struggle with a definition of "great animated films", beyond an obvious OhMyGod factor such as those Disney films possessed. Because of the nature of animation, there is also a HowDidTheyDoThat?! factor, usually the product of a technical breakthrough. If we award "great" based on that factor, we have to include Gertie the Dinosaur, which Windsor McKay reportedly created on a bet, and took on tour in 1914. And Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie, which had sound! (I'm old enough to be astonished to learn that you can actually watch both of these films online, from the comfort of your own PC.)

There had been a few examples of mixing live action with animation, but never anything as thorough and as astonishing as 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit? which not only broke down the wall between toons and humans, but even walls between studios. A piano duet with Daffy and Donald ducks? That's just not possible! Judging from online lists, Roger appears to have fallen from view, but it remains a personal favorite.

Another favorite is Nick Park's brilliant claymation film, The Wrong Trousers, with Wallace and Gromit (and, honestly, other W&G films that followed). Besides being terribly funny, Park's work has always had a huge HowDidTheyDoThat?! factor going for it.

In 1995, Pixar pretty well nailed down the HowDidTheyDoThat?! once and for all with Toy Story. They've done it so consistently since then, in fact, that they may well have removed the wow factor of technology entirely from consideration. There's no more HowDidTheyDoThat?! left; we expect a Pixar film or any film competing with Pixar's product to have incredible graphics, and anything less would be a disappointment.

Which is not to say that great animation cannot be achieved without AmazingTechnology! Very high on my personal list is the 2003 French surrealist film, The Triplets of Belleville, which is an astonishing and original masterpiece of the art.

(That struggle to list the "greatest" animated film has, for the most part, assumed the answer was in feature-length films. Otherwise, mine would be an easy list featuring Chuck Jones, Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny.)

When all is said and done, does Up make the list? I have no idea, except to say that it's a terrific movie and you should see it. Just be sure the pack your hankies.