June 25, 2009:
June 20, 2009:
June 18, 2009:
June 13, 2009:
June 8, 2009:
June 5, 2009:
June 2, 2009:
June 25, 2009:
Phyllis and I will leave this weekend on a long driving trip to points north and east, to places animation- and comics-related or, more often, not. I don't expect to resume posting until sometime in August. Thanks partly to my difficulties in dealing with my site's migration to a new server, I'm leaving a good bit of unfinished business behind. I have a long list of essays, interviews, photos, and such that I want to post, for my own enjoyment as well as to fulfill promises. Jenny, I will post that piece on Chuck Jones's involvement with Disney's Sleeping Beauty, and Thad, I will post the rest of those Song of the South drafts. Just not yet.
Egghead and Elmer. Here, though, is one bit of unfinished business I can sort of finish. Last March, I remarked that Elmer Fudd was not a modified version of his fellow Warner Bros. character Egghead, but that the two characters were always distinct. That was evidenced, I noted in Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, by Elmer's being identified in a Warner publicity sheet for Cinderella Meets Fella (filed with the Library of Congress as a copyright description) as "Egghead's brother." Someone wanted to see that sheet, and I actually intended for a time to reproduce it along with a brief history of the two characters. But I haven't written that brief history, so here, for the record, is that publicity sheet:
(Although I refer to this sheet as a "press release" in an endnote in Hollywood Cartoons, it's not that, since it's directed at exhibitors rather than the press.)
The Egghead-Elmer story is actually a little messy, my sense being that most of the people involved, whether they were making the films or publicizing them, not only had trouble telling the characters apart but had no idea why they should bother trying. But that's a story for another day.
Benzon on Sita. I've spoken very highly of Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues, but I haven't gotten around to writing a full-scale review of it. Now I really don't need to, since Bill Benzon has said most of what needs to be said about that excellent film in an outstanding piece on The Valve. Once again: if you haven't yet bought Paley's DVD, you owe it to yourself, and to the animation medium that you presumably care about, to do so posthaste.
Summer reading. Finally, let me recommend James Wood's book How Fiction Works, which I read earlier this month. Wood has nothing to say specifically about animation or the comics—he's The New Yorker's reigning literary critic—but some of what he says struck me as directly relevant to those fields, as when he writes about Aristotle's famous formulation, in the Poetics, that a convincing impossibility is always preferable to an unconvincing possibility:
The burden is instantly placed not on simple verisimilitude or reference (since Aristotle concedes that an artist may represent something that is physically impossible), but on mimetic persuasion: it is the artist's task to convince us that this could have happened. Internal consistency and plausibility then become more important than referential rectitude.
The lack of "internal consistency and plausibility" is, of course, exactly what I found so unsatisfactory about Up. I've been reminded, though, when reading dozens of enthusiastic comments about that film, of how many cartoon fans reject and resent the need for "internal consistency and plausibility." For them, the unadorned impossible will always be enough, because that's what attracted them to animation in the first place, when they were kids.
I can't feel much sympathy for what amounts to an insistence that we should all stay frozen in place like so many perpetual eight-year-olds, but there's no denying the size of the audience that shares that attitude. It's not an audience that I'll ever be able to please, and thank goodness for that.
June 20, 2009:
Thanks to the indispensable help of Rick Freesland, who set up this site for me six years ago, things seem to be back to normal here (and with no thanks at all to my ISP). I'll tread cautiously for the next few days, just in case.
Things have been quiet on the comment front, but I have made one correction to the "Disney Words and Drawings" Feedback page, to take into account an error that Gunnar Andreassen caught: a man I identified as Otto Englander, in an early-'30s photo, is definitely Pinto Colvig instead. I have a pretty good excuse for that mistake (well, I like it anyway), but I'll spare you.
A June 22 addition: And here's the direct link to that correction that I forgot to include when I posted this item.
June 18, 2009:
My internet service provider, WebIntellects, migrated my site to a new server last week, and since then nothing has worked right. Uploading files through FTP (file transfer protocol) is so far impossible, and WeIntellects has been less than helpful; I'd welcome recommendations for a new ISP. Don't look for new stuff here until I get this problem solved.
June 13, 2009:
The evening before I saw Up again, I watched the just-released DVD of Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues. It was the first time I'd seen Sita complete. I resisted watching it on my computer—it has been available for some time as a download—and I'm glad I waited. The DVD is beautifully produced and looks great on a big TV screen, perhaps even better than it looks on a theater screen, although I wish I'd had the opportunity to see it that way.
I love Sita. Paley's film is endlessly clever and inventive, always great-looking, at times affecting, at other times uproariously funny. It's even beautifully animated, within the boundaries of its technology; I never knew Flash could look this good. Paley made Sita single-handedly, for all practical purposes—other names are in the credits, but she performed the essential tasks of directing, writing, and animating—and in contrast to almost all Hollywood animated features, it's clearly the product not of an impersonal committee but of an artist's keen sensibility. It's one of the very few animated features of the last few decades that I can recommend enthusiastically.
Up is none of those things. But it is, of course, the product of a huge media conglomerate that employed the labor of thousands at a cost of tens of millions, and so it is playing in theaters everywhere and raking in huge sums at the box office. Sita, meanwhile, labors under the burden of an unconscionable copyright law, a law enacted by Congress at the behest of behemoths like Pixar's corporate parent, Disney, and so oppressive that Paley ultimately decided she had no choice but to offer her film to the world without copyright restrictions if she wanted it to be seen.
There's no justice in this life, but you can redress the balance a little by buying Paley's DVD. The DVD (which includes a number of bonus features that I haven't yet watched) cost me just a little more than I paid to see Up twice There's not the slightest doubt in my mind as to which was the better bargain. You can order the DVD of Sita Sings the Blues by going to Paley's blog. Buy it. Now.
I was a little slow in reading and thus recommending Keith Lango's excellent review of Up, but let me recommend it again. Keith noted in a follow-up posting that Michael Sporn and I were, like him, less than completely enchanted by that film. A lot of people can't tolerate skepticism about a Hollywood animated feature when it comes from a non-animator like me, but now, to judge from some of the responses to Keith's post, the merest whisper of doubt has become dangerous even for an animator as accomplished as Michael.
Those hostile responses seem to have been shaped by a poisonous feature-animation culture that Keith describes with unsettling vividness:
I'm finding that my own views on animation—especially the big studio feature film variety—have evolved a lot more now that I'm not in the belly of the animation studio biz like I used to be. That culture can be claustrophobically limited and tends to be very self-reinforcing (a dangerous hallmark of any brand of fanaticism, by the way). You always end up working with the same people, or people who know people, again and again. Everybody is one level removed from everybody else. So there is a strong, unspoken pressure to not rock the boat, to be as vanilla as possible. Keep potentially caustic opinions to yourself because you never know what thin-skinned person (or friend of said person) you might offend by expressing an original critical thought. Plus there is a tendency to elevate the profession of character animation to levels of importance and significance that are, frankly, just silly. One artifact of this is to navel gaze about the smallest of details, which is tiresome to me and misses the point. There is a noble benefit to self improvement and refinement of one's craft, but do we really need to study video reference of the tongue in slow motion in order to convincingly animate an "L" sound? Really? So often CG film animation misses the forest for the veins in the leaves on the twigs of the branches of the trees.
I must say that I'm flattered and pleased that Michael Sporn has now been bracketed with me as one of those cranky old men who chase kids off their lawns. It was getting a little lonely here at the Curmudgeons' Club. But it seems clear from some of his visitors' surly comments that Keith Lango had better be careful, or he'll find himself a member, too.
From Roberto González Fernández: I usually read your reviews because they are personal and different. I agreed with your opinion about Wall•E, but I'm afraid I can't say the same about what you said about Up. I do agree with some of your points.I especially agree that Lasseter's influence seems a lot more evident in Up that it was in Monsters, Inc. and this is becoming a bad sign lately, cause Lasseter seems to have a taste for the overly sentimental. I agree that some of the emotional aspects in Up are overplayed and manipulative, like the cross-heart thing.
That said, I think the basic idea of the plot introduces the emotional aspects in a natural way. After all, it's a story of a man that's getting old and the death of his wife is certainly a problem that fits naturally here. It's just the fact that they keep mentioning Ellie and the cross-heart gesture that makes it unsubtle. On the other hand you also criticize Russell's backstory for being short and tacked on. I'd agree that the first one is a little overplayed and the second one wasn't all that necessary, but...what would be the adequate amount of emotion? Personally I even find Dumbo's sad scenes a little sappy. I'm just more of a Looney Tunes fan, I guess, and while I'm fine with the introduction of dramatic elements in animated movies I think Disney and now Pixar have a tendency to give them too much attention. Maybe they repeat the message to make it more clear for kids, but I don't think kids are such fans of dramatic elements either.
Like many others I fail to see the problem with the implausibilities. Maybe there is one I'd agree with, that perhaps Carl should have been conceived a little differently, a little more like Scrooge McDuck perhaps. They could have made him a little stronger for the very beginning, even as a kid who liked the adventure he seemed kind of clumsy. If he had been a little more agile or strong maybe that would have made everything a little more credible.
What I fail to see is why the movie can't start in real world and transform into a fantasy later. Especially when this happens so soon in the movie. Maybe I'd agree with you if everything had been completely realistic until the last twenty minutes. And it's not like everything in the other part is so surreal either. The dogs talk, but they do that with a talking device. They pilot airplanes but it's because they are extremely well-trained, not because they are anthropomorphic animals like Mickey Mouse or Goofy. Kevin is a strange bird, but there are certainly strange animals in the world. A regular Scrooge McDuck adventure in a Carl Barks comic book would start with a real-life situation, then he travels and finds something extraordinary. Yes, his world is already extraordinary cause he's a duck that talks in a world of animals that talk, but it's a similar story structure. Discoveries of impossible worlds and surprising devices are things that are usually accepted in adventure movies or novels. A story like Journey to The Center Of The Earth would also start in real world until they found something extraordinary.
Personally, I loved Up for the most part. I think the character-based humor in Up is really good, I loved Russell's character. I don't mind about the backstory of his parents. He's a really fun character as he is. Same thing could be said about Mittens in Bolt, I remember you also dismissed her role in that movie because you found her back story tacked on. But she was the best character in that movie nevertheless. She had a distinct and fun personality.
Up had good pacing, good character-based jokes,and enjoyable action sequences. The dramatic part at the beginning is also very well done, but I don't think that the movie should have continued in that tone necessarily. That's there to explain the character motivation. It's an adventure movie, not a Ingmar Bergman's drama. Even though it has interesting things for all ages it's supposed to be entertaining for the kids too, not depressing. If it had continued with the tone of the first half it probably wouldn't work for the children.
In my opinion Up works much better than Wall•E as a family movie, everybody can enjoy it at some level. Wall•E was too simplistic in its message to be considered a science fiction masterpiece and too deep and slow-paced for the kids. It seemed pretentious at places and it was very over the place in its second half. I didn't feel the same with Up, from the commercials I was expecting to see a fantasy-comedy-adventure film, not a realistic film. And I found what I expected.
MB replies: There's no need for me to reply at length, since I've already written so much about Up, and the film has so clearly won the battle of the box office. A lot more people agree with Roberto than agree with me. So I'll just say that I think that almost all of the ingredients of Up could have been assembled in a way that pleased not just the millions at the box office but also the few dissenters. Dial back the emotional manipulation, build up to some of the implausibilities so that they aren't so blatantly such (why couldn't Carl have been planning his escape by balloon for weeks or months?), make Muntz more of an eccentric and less of a villain—do such things, and you might have had a movie that not only was a box-office draw in 2009 but also wasn't an embarrassment to its makers twenty years later, as I think Up well may be.
[Posted August 18, 2009]
June 8, 2009:
It's flattering to an author when someone takes his work seriously enough to really study it, whether to build on it or to find holes in his research or his reasoning. Gunnar Andreassen, a Norwegian friend of the site, was prompted by some postings here to devote that kind of study to what I wrote about the evolution of the Disney storyboard (and Albert Hurter's role in story work) in Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age.
Gunnar has written to me, sharing some discoveries, posing some questions about what I've written, and supporting his questions with vintage drawings, some of them new to me and probably to most of my visitors. I've posted his questions, and my extended response, on a Feedback page titled "Disney Words and Drawings: An Exchange."
If you've enjoyed past Disney-history postings like the one about the flypaper sequence in Playful Pluto, you'll probably find this one right up your alley, too.
From Thad Komorowski, this screen cap from a Web site that purports to rate blogs according to what its proprietors consider objectionable content. I suppose the idea is that parents and nervous nellies of other kinds will block these sites so that they won't contaminate tender minds. My site is, as you can see, consigned to the furthest reaches of the nasty. I guess I should have been calling Dick Huemer "Richard" all this time...and the "cock" in question is, of course, Cock Robin, the star of a porno cartoon by the well-known child molester, W. Disney. The people running this site are ignorant creeps, in other words. I hope no one is taking them seriously.
From Robert Holmen: I think that site the purports to give ratings to blogs should be sued... by the MPAA. Those rating designations are all protected industry trademarks, no?. I recall the problem with "X" was that it wasn't trademarked and so the porn industry was able to adopt it for its own use. And that's why the new NC-17 had to be invented. Not that it solved anything.
[Posted June 10, 2009]
June 5, 2009:
Like a few other people, I've complained about the cascading implausibilities in Pixar's Up. But the greatest implausibility, it seems, is the balloon-powered house itself. It turns out it would take far more balloons than Carl had at his disposal (and certainly far more than he could have deployed overnight) to send his house into the air. Details in the Slate article at this link (thanks, Bill Benzon).
Of course, Dumbo couldn't really have flown, either, but that film delivered in so many other ways that its central falsehood, if you want to call it that, didn't matter. No such luck with Up.
From Dan Briney: The actual physics of lifting one's house into the sky via balloon power aren't the problem with Up; the problem (as Bill Benzon pointed out earlier) is that the "laws" of Up's universe are internally inconsistent. The huge cluster of helium balloons is capable of pulling a house from its foundation, yet can be anchored by a little old man tugging the entire mess along on foot. The dogs behave very much like dogs, able to "speak" only with the aid of electronic collars transmitting their thoughts, yet are evolved enough to fly biplanes.
Dumbo had no such conflicts, and never asked the audience to accept Up's conceit of taking place in the "real" world. Elephants can't fly, but neither can they talk; nor do old-lady elephants form catty social circles; nor do crows sing and chew cigars; nor do mice wear ringmaster's uniforms; nor do storks deliver babies. While Up tries to have it both ways, Dumbo is pure fantasy. (It would have been something else altogether had Dumbo been an animated True-Life Adventure about elephants, with one suddenly launching itself into the sky halfway through the film.)
The irony is that in attempting to justify its fantastic elements—the flying house, the "talking" dogs—Up ends up calling more attention to its total ludicrousness. Worse, the film gets progressively lazier as it goes on, finally deciding (since we've swallowed everything else they've thrown us to that point) to turn decrepit old Carl into an action hero and the dogs into aviators. I've never seen a Pixar film display such contempt for its audience, and I'm usually a sucker for the mawkish sentimentality.
MB replies: In writing about Dumbo on pages 318-19 of Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age, I say (among other things), "Because the most important animation in Dumbo is so deeply felt, it turns back the questions a critical audience might otherwise be tempted to raise. ... Here was a wonderful paradox: when a film's animation is emotionally truthful, fantasy of almost any kind is open to it." On the evidence so far, and certainly on the evidence of Up, that sort of animation is beyond the reach of CGI animators.
[Posted June 6, 2009]
From Gordon Kent: I haven't seen Up yet (I still plan to) and I may very well end up agreeing with you about the film... however, I feel I must comment on the whole idea of whether or not balloons can lift a house in the air, dogs can fly a plane and a decrepit old man can become an action hero...
As you yourself pointed out, it didn't matter that elephants can't really fly... or all the other fantasies in that movie and every other cartoon—because what's the point of doing it in animation if you can do it in live action? (CGI and special FX aside since now you can do anything.)
I think the real problem with Up (as least for those who are criticizing it for its lack of "reality") is that you simply didn't like the movie and, once you began to lose interest, you started to pick it apart and anything and everything was fair game for complaint.
To me, whether or not balloons can lift a house off its foundation or an old man can suddenly be a hero is not the point—it would seem to me that those who are critical didn't like or care about the characters; weren't interested in their problems and didn't care if they succeeded. At least not enough to overlook what I consider the "little" things...
MB replies: I doubt there has ever been a movie (or, for that matter, any work of fiction) that didn't depend to greater or lesser extent on implausibilities. Part of the artist's job is to render those implausibilities unimportant or irrelevant, and there are many valid ways to do that. My central complaint about Up is that Pete Docter and his colleagues try to push the burden back onto the viewer: if you're troubled by the implausibilities, that's your problem. If you're not drowning in tears by the time Ellie dies—if, perhaps, you find Ellie the little tomboy noisy and repulsive, and Ellie and Carl's passion for Paradise Falls indicative of insanity—you're obviously a defective person, and your subsequent qualms about the 200-year-old Charles Muntz and his gourmet-chef flying dogs and his immaculate zeppelin and Carl's supernatural acrobatic ability and...well, all that stuff, need not bother the good people who love the movie and want to adopt Russell. Such tacky emotional blackmail is what I'd expect from smug, middle-aged moralizers, which is what the people running Pixar seem to have become.
From Bill Benzon: You're recent references to Dumbo sent me back to the Dumbo piece I'd written for you. I'd forgotten most of what I said in that essay.
For a short feature done on the cheap, Dumbo is an incredibly rich film, easily one of Disney's very finest. And the richness is in the story itself, the multitude of characters, and in the credibility given them through excellent character animation. I'm not talking only about the central characters—Dumbo, his mother, and Timothy—but the secondary and tertiary characters as well: the crows, the other elephants, the clowns, and the ringmaster. They're all treated with liveliness and imagination. The upshot is a rich and believable social world where the fantasy elements are hardly noticed.
And a world deeply resonant of America itself. Much of the resonance comes from the circus itself, which has a rich place in American mythology, much richer then than now. Given that mythic status, the way Disney gives us the behind-the-scenes circus world cuts deep.
I can still see those roustabouts in my mind's eye. They weren't on the screen for long, and their faces didn't have features (more likely a cost-saving measure rather than a stylistic decision), but they were working men. And their back-breaking physical labor was mirrored in that of the elephants.
I could go on and on, and I'd only end up repeating that essay. Up simply
isn't that rich, that tightly integrated. It would be interesting to show a lot of people a double bill of Dumbo and Up, sometimes with Up first, sometimes with Dumbo first. I wonder how people would react to Up in such a comparison?
MB replies: I should have mentioned Bill's essay on Dumbo the last time around. If you haven't read it yet, and you have any kind of serious interest in classic Disney animation, you owe it to yourself to read it. It's at this link. And while I'm at it, let me recommend a couple of other Disney-themed Benzon essays. One that wound up as a sort of collaboration between Bill and me is titled "It'll Amaze Ya: Animated Acting in Fantasia," and the other, by Bill alone, is titled "Fantasia: Uncle Walt and the Sacred."
[Posted June 8, 2009]
From "Rubi-kun": I can't say I share your qualms with the opening of Up. Probably
because when I was younger, I could relate to "noisy and repulsive" Ellie, only instead of being a great explorer and going to Paradise Falls, my ambition was to be a great scientist and discover time travel (later that ambition became and still is to be a great director and work at Pixar). I guess I still am very noisy and might repulse some people, but I think I've been growing up fairly fine and I guess that's why I can see Ellie doing the same. I might see Ellie and Carl's passion for Paradise Falls as "insanity" if not for the scenes of them working at the South America section of the zoo. That showed they were able to channel their passion into something productive while continuing to live a fairly happy life and thus I can't call that insane.
While the Carl and Ellie story moved me a bit, I didn't feel the same over Russell's backstory. To be honest, it never occurred to me that it was intended to be some sort of big tear-jerking drama. You seem to be acting like it was a focus of the movie, when there's two or three lines about it. I saw it mostly as just a plot device that helped develop the relationship of the characters, not some major plea to the audience for being uber-serious.
[Posted June 10, 2009]
June 2, 2009:
You've probably seen it by now, like millions of other people, enough to propel it to a very strong showing at the box office in its first weekend. You don't need me to to tell you what to think about it, but for what it's worth, my review is at this link. For different perspectives, let me recommend the reviews by Mark Mayerson and Michael Sporn.
I saw Up in 2D, but I hope to see it in 3D in the next week or so, and I'll add to my review any second thoughts that such a viewing inspires.
From Dan Briney: I greatly appreciated your review of Up. Pixar produces the only animated films I bother going to see anymore, and until now they'd never disappointed me. Up is the first Pixar film that I actually felt like walking out of. Not only is it a disjointed, hollow, illogical mess of a movie, but the reviews have been so universally positive that I had begun to worry I had lost my mind, or my soul, or that the movie ticket had granted me temporary access to a parallel universe. The line of praise I keep hearing is that Pixar has created something "real," something "adult," with mature themes and emotions; and yet the movie is about a four-foot-high man who tows his house through the air by hand and does battle with a centenarian holdover from Perils of Pauline and his army of talking dogs. If ever a film was the subject of critical Groupthink, Up is it.
From Michael Sporn: I just read your review. Phew! After reading David Denby yesterday I thought I was going crazy. But then after I put up my basically negative comments, I prepared for idiots to fill my comment box attacking me. Instead, they not only seem to agree but are telling me I didn't go far enough.
You're also the first person I've read who says how ugly these characters are. I've said it in small bits after seeing the trailers, but I stayed away from that in the review I did write. I thought there was too much to go after with the enormous lapses of logic in the film.
Just wanted to say it you'd written a good review. I say that even though I am not a fan of Monsters, Inc. I could never get past the typical kid out of a Don Bluth film.
MB replies: I can't say that anything about Boo made me think of a "typical kid out of a Don Bluth film." She seems more sharply observed than that. Maybe it's because I'm around small children much more than I used to be (I now live a half block from the grammar school I attended for six years, and there are lots of little kids at the Episcopal cathedral where I'm a parishioner), but Boo seems to me to be right on the money—as Russell does not.
Denby's New Yorker paean to Up was indeed weird, but I've run across mild skepticism in a few other reviews, notably Joe Morgenstern's for the Wall Street Journal. The New York Times's review by Manohla Dargis was at least less than totally enthusiastic. All the reviews, though, take for granted that Pixar exists in a realm apart not just from other cartoon studios, but from other movie studios in general. That it might be turning into animation's whited sepulcher seems not to occur to any mainstream critics. Pixar's persistent failure even to acknowledge the challenges of character animation is to me its worst failing—the character animation in Monsters, Inc. is actually a lot better, to my eye, than the character animation in Up.
As for the "idiots," I think it's safe to say that most of them have been too busy piling up feverish comments at Cartoon Brew to pay attention to dissenters. When I skim through such great compost heaps of blather, I always find myself wondering, who are these people, and how empty are their lives that they should attach so much importance to something as dim as Up?
[Posted June 2, 2009]
From Vincent Alexander: I read your review of Up. I always enjoy reading your commentary because it gives me something to think about. Critics usually just dismiss whatever they don't like, but your reviews actually analyze the film and you give good reasons to back up your opinions. That said, though, I didn't agree with your review.
I don't know if it's a fair criticism to say that Up has too many fantasy elements to be accepted as fantasy. If the film demanded to be taken totally seriously, the way a lot of superhero movies try to create "logical" explanations for how their characters received their powers, then I would agree with you, but its tone is never so pretentious. I don't think the fact that it has sad moments (which I thought were really effective, by the way) changes the fact that it is an animated comedy that doesn't have to be possible in our world.
But let's say, for the sake of argument, that the filmmakers still should've made an effort to keep it plausible. If that's the case, then why doesn't that apply to the Disney classics? Take Pinocchio for instance. That film asks us to believe that a wish on a star can bring to life a wooden puppet, anthropopomorphic crickets, foxes, and cats can exist in the same world as non-speaking kittens, goldfish and whales, a woodworker and his pets can survive for days in the belly of a whale, Pinocchio and Jiminy can can swim around underwater with no need of oxygen, and a shady coachman can somehow transform little boys into donkeys (who also can't talk). Similar points could be made for Snow White (which asks us to believe that the Queen would put a curse on Snow White that could be broken by love's first kiss instead of just poisoning her) and Dumbo (which asks us to believe that an elephant can use overlarge ears to soar around like an airplane). And yet, we all love those movies and we can accept their fantastic elements because they work. So, why can't we accept that an old guy can make his house fly with a bunch of balloons? Just something to think about, anyway.
MB replies: As I said in my review, "Even though I could never believe in Carl ... I could certainly believe in his flying house and in the meticulously imagined landscapes beneath it." I loved the early scenes of the flying house, especially. I just wish the film had persuaded me that someone as limited as Carl could have sent his house into the air. I was ready to believe that, but Carl himself kept getting in the way. If Carl had been conceived only a little differently, instead of as a stock grumpy old man, I think the film would have benefited enormously.
Similarly, I have always had trouble with Pinocchio, for reasons like those you list, but my reservations almost certainly would have melted away if Pinocchio himself had been conceived as a mischievous character closer to the one in Collodi's book, so that his journey toward becoming a "real boy" had more emotional substance. Snow White and Dumbo are both rooted in some of our deepest feelings about one another and our own lives, and the films' many fantastic elements are in service to that reality. That's why I find both of those films wonderful, as I do not with either Pinocchio or Up.
Oh, and why does the Queen put Snow White into suspended animation instead of killing her outright? Well, surely that's because she's a first-class sadist, as she lets us know by cackling so enthusiastically when she tells us (in her guise as an old peddler) that the dwarfs are unwittingly going to bury Snow White alive.
From Bill Benzon: I enjoyed your review, Mike. You got right to the heart of the problem. Up may be a fantasy, but it just doesn't hang together on any level. Fantasies have to be internally coherent, because that's all they've got. The fantasy world has to operate according to a coherent set of rules. This one didn't.
I started getting worried when the old coot got into the fight [at the beginning of the film]. But I didn't realize this contraption just wasn't working until the house lifted off. Then I began to wonder just how it had managed such a clean break from its foundations and what happened to the plumbing—didn't see any broken pipes hanging down—and the electrical hook-ups. And how'd they did get all the way to Venezuela in a single night of drifting without anyone steering?
(BTW, I never worried about the plumbing in Howl's Moving Castle. Nor was I in the least bit concerned that this castle could open into two different cities and a high mountain meadow without moving an inch. It all made perfect sense, in the world Miyazaki created.)
It went downhill from there. Those talking dogs were utterly absurd, especially the high voice of Alpha. Toward the end I began to worry just how Russell managed to breath without any nostrils.
From "Rubi-kun": You're right that Up is silly. I just don't think said silliness is a bad thing. Ty Burr from the Boston Globe, who liked the movie, said it well when he said that the movie is basically vaudeville. I'd say the film is essentially a giant dream; I recall an interview with Pete Docter on the Howl's Moving Castle DVD (if I recall, your criticisms of that film were fairly similar to your criticisms of this one) that he while producing the dub of that film he got very into Miyazaki's "dream logic" and said he was trying to do something similar with Up. The fact Up's main theme and its emotion elements are all about dreams, not to mention all the Wizard of Oz references throughout the film, would seem to indicate that that's the way the movie works. Odd you blamed the film's style on Lasseter even though he also produced Monsters, Inc.
MB replies: My review of Howl's Moving Castle is at this link. I was surprised when I realized that Miyazaki never crossed my mind when I was watching Up and when I was thinking about it later. I certainly wasn't aware that Docter had made that connection.
I'll concede as a general principle that silliness isn't always a bad thing in movies, although it's hard for me to think of any examples I can wholeheartedly endorse. Million Dollar Legs, maybe, or perhaps the best of the Marx Brothers. Or possibly Airplane. I don't think the kind of silliness I found in Up qualifies, though. The many terms in which the film has been praised—"vaudeville," "a giant dream," just to use two examples in your message—strike me not as evidence of its protean character, but of its incoherence. If Up were willfully silly, I don't think we'd hear quite so much about Russell's family problems or quite so much from Carl about Ellie.
You're correct that Lasseter (and Andrew Stanton) also had executive-producer credit on Monsters, Inc., Pete Docter's first feature. For whatever reason, though, their influence is much less obvious—to me, anyway—in the earlier film.
Take, Boo, for example—she is presented as, I would guess, a two-year-old, but I don't recall that she ever once cries for her mother during all the time she is in "Monsteropolis." However unlikely that she would have turned only to "Kitty"—that is, to the monster Sully—for protection, I think that keeping Boo's parents out of the story was a wise decision, since it permitted the Sully/Boo relationship to grow without any distractions. Were Monsters, Inc., being made now, in the wake of Cars and Finding Nemo, it is all too easy to imagine that we would learn far more about Boo and her parents that we ever needed to know.
From John K. Richardson: I guess one reason the many implausibilities didn't bother me was because, in some way, they worked for me in the same way a dream sequence would work. I hadn't thought about that consciously at first, but that may be why the dichotomy in tone didn't put me off either. Of course, it's also true that I'm just pretty easily charmed by fun. When I see all those funny concepts piled up with such glee, it just feels like a parody of an action film (and several other genres, I guess). And I've always loved parodies.
[Posted June 3, 2009]
From Thad Komorowski: It's repetition at its finest with what's happening at Pixar. The Incredibles is what should have been a starting ground for the studio rather than a peak. The jury is still out on whether Brad Bird could be a great director, because there's only that one great film to his name. (I really can't consider Ratatouille his... All that proved is that he's an apt quilt-maker.) I don't think there will be any other Pixar films that will go beyond mere decent entertainment, but it was fun to think so for a while.
As for Snow White, having watched a nice 16mm print I have to sell the other day, I have to say it's a little clunky, with long needless exposition scenes that don't really add anything. (Have you ever timed how long the dwarfs spend getting up the stairs? Incredible.) It's great, sure, but with a little editing it could have been even greater.
I think why Dumbo holds up as my favorite (and one of the only animated movies that would be on my list of favorite films) is that the thinking behind it is the same mentality as the shorts. No bullshit about being "serious," just a bunch of talented guys at their finest doing their best and most personal work. With that kind of mentality behind it, of course the "Baby Mine" scene works, and it's why everybody stands up and cheers when Dumbo is reunited with his mother. I think those "society" elephants got off too easy, though. I'd have liked to have seen Jim Crow playing out some boogie woogie on an ivory piano where the cart used to be before the final iris, but you can't have everything. There you go, my one reservation.
MB replies: Well, sure, it takes a while for the dwarfs to get upstairs and confront Snow White, but, as Dave Hand said, there are seven of the little guys, and even before they meet Snow White and get names attached, they've already started to sort themselves out, just through the way they behave. Walt was never afraid to spend time introducing characters if it would pay off later, as it usually did.
It's odd to think of it, but I've never heard Brad Bird's name attached to any project that sounded terribly original. The Incredibles is a wonderful movie, but it's a superhero parody, and there's certainly nothing original about that. I'd guess that Bird would function best in a Ford-Nichols or Capra-Riskin sort of arrangement, where the director is unquestionably supreme but has a sympathetic and trustworthy collaborator at his elbow.
From Bill Benzon: Just read through the comments, Mike. I'd like to pursue the coherence business a bit, because I think it's important, and subtle (and, in the end, more than I know how to deal with).
I'd forgotten Docter's comments on Howl's Moving Castle. Note that, unlike Up, the fantasy nature of HMC is firmly established within the first minute or two. Not only do we see the castle walking on its chicken legs, but we hear the shop girls talking about Howl himself, how he is a wizard, and eats young girls' hearts (if I recall correctly). It's not too long after that we see Howl himself, coming to rescue Sophie by putting a spell on the two soldiers and marching them off. Then the witch's henchmen start oozing out of the walls and Howl and Sophie are walking in air. This must all happen within the first 10 minutes or so.
Up is quite different. The opening of the film is dominated by the recap of Carl and Ellie's marriage, done in highly stylized, but realistic terms. And so it is with Carl's conflict with the construction folks and with his trial. It's all highly stylized, but within the imaginable capabilities of an old man living in our world. It isn't until the house actually lifts off that we realize we're not in Dorothy's Kansas anymore, no we're not. Still, this isn't much more than a plausible exaggeration. But, at some point, I just stopped believing the exaggeration was at all plausible. At some point a carefully constructed world gave way to a disconnected set of gags. And the gags weren't in support of any particular premise. They're just gags. We get a bunch of gags and stunts and have lost the serious underpinnings of this story.
As you indicated, Mike, there is some serious material in this story, but Docter didn't know how to use it. The initial treatment of Carl and Ellie was poignant, and was supposed to give meaning to that house. But it didn't work; to paraphrase Coleridge, we knew, but didn't feel the connection. And there's Russell's back story, which was just laid out there for us, at the beginning, and at the end. But it wasn't sustained in any way and the ending, the badge and mom, was just tacked on.
And then there's Kevin. Here character design may have been a problem. She was too gorgeous and goofy to arouse much sympathy as a distressed mother (cf. Dumbo's mom). And her wounded leg was something between a painful impediment and a gag. The whole gender confusion gag, was, well, confusing. First we encounter Kevin as an oddly ominous comic character. And we get used to HIM in that role. Once that's settled in, then we learn SHE's a mom anxious about her babies. Whoops! Why's she anxious about her babies? Because Muntz, the crazed codger explorer and inventor, was after her and she was desperate to save herself and to protect her babies. That's serious stuff that just got lost in all the gags. Her story might have bridged various gaps, it seems positioned to have done so, but it didn't quite work out that way. We didn't know whether she was being played for laughs, poignancy, or more action!
So, on the one had, there's lots of stuff in Up, much of it gorgeously made and presented. There's something for everyone to like. But, it just doesn't hang together as a story. There's too much material working at cross purposes: characters, their dreams and desires, their physical designs, plot elements, themes, long arcs, all jangled in there pulling in 73 different directions. It exhausts me just to think about it. Docter must have felt like Carl dragging that house around.
MB replies: I've been impressed by how difficult it seems to be for people to get their arms around this movie, whether they like it or dislike it, and I think the reason is the one Bill identifies, that there is "too much material working at cross purposes." There's no single fatal flaw in Up, much less an overriding saving virtue, but rather a terrible jumble of half-formed ideas. Some of them disarmingly are well executed, as with the flight of Carl's house, but only in the narrowest technical terms. To put it another way, can a movie that sometimes looks so good really be bad? Unfortunately, yes.
[Posted June 4, 2009]
From Bill Benzon: Another thought or two about Up. I think Mark Mayerson is on to something in this remark:
I wonder if this film could have been done without a villain? King Vidor said, 'You know, villains are few and far between. The drama of life is not dependent on villains. They don¹t have to be present to have a story. Divorce, tragedy, sadness, and illness are not dependent on villains.' Miyazaki has made films without villains such as My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service. Up may have been more difficult to write without the convenience of a villain, but it might have been stronger for it.
So, let's keep the Muntz video clip at the beginning—it motivates the trip to Paradise Falls—but otherwise simply drop him from the film. That gets rid of a pile of improbabilities while leaving Carl and Russell with plenty of challenges—nor would it hurt to have followed Mayerson's other suggestion and make Russell a girl, say a bit like Ellie, but I¹ll leave that one alone.
Now Kevin's situation in the film is simplified as she no longer has to function as Muntz's potential victim. And, with Muntz out of the way, we have more time to develop relationships between Kevin, Carl, and Russell. Kevin can still be wounded, they can still help her, but now they've got more time and Russell has more 'space' in which to use his scouting skills instead of being a (literal) drag on Carl's house-moving act.
Further, the way is now open for Carl himself to realize that Kevin is in fact the bird his old hero had discovered; he's now in a position to rehabilitate Muntz's reputation. Now, whether this is a private rehabilitation that he shares only with Russell or is something that gets six inches on A12 back home and a spot in National Geographic, that'll have to be worked out. As for getting back home, without Muntz's pristine dirigible up and flying, they'll need another means. But, at worst, that's a wash, since that dirigible was wildly implausible anyhow.
Of course, this is all after the fact and easier said than done, etc. The point is simply that Up didn't need to be a bloated gagfest. Getting back to Docter's admiration for Miyazaki, the dreamlike character of his films is not rooted in gags, it's rooted in the story and its characters. Docter had viable characters and story material, he just didn't give them room to grow. He should have had more faith in them.
[Posted June 6, 2009]
From Thad Komorowski: You write about how Brad Bird's name has never been "attached to any project that sounded terribly original." Don't be so dismissive. There are only so many original ideas in the world. If the idea is the only thing we're looking at, then there's nothing original about Chuck Jones' Duck Amuck, nor is there anything original about him doing so many Road Runner cartoons (just to mention a shared sacred cow of ours). Likewise, there are barely any "terribly original projects" by Ford and Capra (or any directors). It's the original approach more than the actual idea that grabs our attention.
I like your complaint of Pixar not evolving as far as character animation is concerned. (Even if one just went by your own reviews, one would see that even DreamWorks is catching up as far as the actual look is concerned.. But even so, all of the movies are plastic and charmless.) It would be like if McKimson's Warner cartoons were the only Warner cartoons that existed. Are they funny? Yes. Well-animated? Yes. Above most of the contemporary output? Yes. But still plenty of room for growth and improvement in all areas? Yes.That's how I view Pixar now. They exist with no real competition, hence the orgasming reviews from the Pixar cult.
[Posted June 8, 2009]
From Robert Holmen: I was disappointed in your reaction to Up. I think it's a sign that the animation community may be expecting WAY too much from what are designed as very commercial Hollywood films.
I've worked on a very LOW budget animated feature. It's a miracle any ever get done, even with big budgets.
I think if Pixar can get mainstream adults to admit they have been to an animated feature without having to use the alibi clause of taking a five-year-old child to see it, that would be a great advance for animation. Hasn't happened yet, however.
[Posted June 11, 2009]