I know, I know – Pixar Studios has yet to make a bad movie, and their least effort is merely really good. I know. But after finding their work amazing as everybody else did for several years, I’ve been disappointed by their last two films, WALL-E and Up. And yet, both of these films seem to generally receive almost unanimously high praise. Odd. In each case, though, I was entranced by the early part of the film and let down by the latter part. Each film left me with the odd sense that the filmmakers just didn’t have the total confidence they needed to keep following the threads of their stories in the directions they wanted to go, so each film, after a remarkable start, settles into something a lot more familiar and a lot more routine. Neither film seemed as good to me, as strong, as the previous films in the Pixar canon – Ratatouille, The Incredibles, and my favorite Pixar film to date, Finding Nemo.
(Yes, I omit Cars from that pantheon — I like that movie more than most, but I do have to concede its problems, especially in the area that we fantasy lovers call “worldbuilding”. As finely done as Cars is, it’s often just a bit too hard to really buy into the world of the movie. Hard enough to accept that these sentient cars live in a landscape that is so clearly human in its design – I constantly found myself wondering things like “Why would cars build hotels that look like hotels?” and “In a world where the dominant lifeform is the car, what possible purpose do tractors serve?”. Even more damaging, though, were the automobile-related physical landmarks in the film, like big rock ridges shaped like radiators and tail-fins. Things like that really kept me, at least in part, outside the film for most of the time. And still, it’s a really likable and watchable movie.)
So: Ratatouille, which I watched in its entirety for the first time just a few weeks ago. I’d already seen lots of it, perhaps eighty percent of it, in bits and pieces on nights when The Daughter watched it. I loved this film a great deal, when I finally watched it from beginning to end. Its strengths are the same as all of the great Pixar films: character and story, of course, but I also think that the best Pixar films also achieve something visually that most, if not all, of the other animation studios only scratch at: visual beauty. Ratatouille is a gorgeous film. Setting the film in Paris, the animators imbue every frame with a glowing appearance, befitting Remy (our rat hero) and his view of Paris as ultimate land of culinary dreams come true. Even in the scenes set in dark places, the film has “pockets” of light, such as the rooms, and the tableaus within, that Remy briefly looks down upon as he runs through the floorboards and plumbing ducts of the great city.
More than that, Ratatouille, as a film, has the courage of its convictions as it plays out. This is important, and it’s a big reason why I was somewhat unsatisfied by Wall-E and Up.
In the first case, we have the story of the “little trash robot that could”. I’ve got to be honest: the first half of that movie is utterly engrossing, and it’s all the more engrossing because it all plays out without dialog to explain things along the way. All we hear are ambient sounds as Wall-E does his daily routine in his world (which is our world, after we’ve piled it so high with garbage that we’ve literally abandoned it). Onto his world arrives another robot, this one clearly feminine and far more advanced than Wall-E, and there’s a very gentle kind of thing that goes on in the movie next as the two robots get to know each other. Or, rather, as Wall-E tries to get to know Eve, who at first doesn’t seem terribly interested in Wall-E at all.
Eventually the movie brings us back to the world of humans, which is roughly where I felt the film deflate a bit. A lot of the film’s magic seems to go away when the humans are around. The notion is that we’ve become so technologically advanced that we need literally do nothing for ourselves, so we’ve all become a very fat and sedentary species. In fact, the greatest human accomplishment depicted in the movie is when one particular human actually stands up. The old “dangers of technological reliance” chestnut is a very old SF plot; we’ve seen it many times before and will doubtless see it many more times to come. In Wall-E it’s just OK, but to be honest, every time our attention in the movie is directed to the humans, I found myself thinking, within seconds, “Can we get back to the two robots?”
I think it’s because the scenes between Wall-E and Eve are so good that the other stuff ends up feeling perfunctory, and I started to suspect that maybe the Pixar folks just couldn’t bring themselves to do what I wish they’d have done: made the two robots and their love story the entire movie, with no human presence at all. At no point did I wonder where the humans were or if they’d ever come back to Earth; I didn’t need to know how the terraforming of our own home planet would come to pass. All I wanted to see was the interaction of the trash robot and the sleek explorer robot.
The scene where Wall-E and Eve “dance” in space is one of the most magical things I’ve ever seen in a movie, but that scene almost seems to max out the movie’s magic quotient.
That brings me to Up. Again, I felt let down by Pixar about halfway through the film, when for no reason I can discern, they took a captivating narrative that had been casting an irresistible spell over me and went instead in a much more conventional direction.
Up begins with a sequence that has been lauded by nearly everyone I’ve heard comment on the film. We meet our hero, Carl Frederickson, as a young boy who is obsessed with the exploratory adventures of one of those Charles Lindbergh-types who used to go around the world, into the unexplored places of our planet, and come back with thrilling tales of wonderment, until he too disappeared. Carl meets a girl with the same obsession, Ellie, and over the next few minutes the film takes us through Carl and Ellie’s life together – as childhood friends, then sweethearts, then husband and wife. The film depicts, with little or no dialog, the day they move into their house, the day they lose their baby, the days they spend quietly together while still nursing thoughts of adventure in their minds, and finally, Ellie’s fatal illness. By the time we get to the meat of the story, Carl is an old and somewhat bitter widower.
The sleepy street he lives on has become Development Hell, and the developers want him to move so they can finish their big skyscraper or something like that. They seem to finally get the upper hand on him, forcing him to abandon his house (and, by extension, his life with Ellie) and move to an old folks’ home – but Carl ties thousands of helium-filled balloons to his chimney, lifting the house free from its foundations. Thus does he set his sights on South America, where he hopes the find the almost mythical locale that eluded the disappeared adventurer from his youth. It’s just Carl and his house, floating southward beneath a giant bunch of balloons. Carl settles himself into his favorite armchair for the journey, when there’s a knock at his door. It turns out that when the house had broken free of its moorings, a local boy scout named Russell, who needs to get that last badge to complete his training for whatever the next level up happens to be, was on his porch about to knock the door when the house took flight. The film is now a tale of an unlikely friendship that is slow to develop as Carl must start to set aside some of his bitterness, now that this kid who is young and earnest but prone to screwing up is along for the ride.
All of this is wonderful stuff. Really, it is; the way the film doesn’t shy from some of the darker aspects of life and the whimsical manner of Carl’s escape from his old life in precisely an effort to grab the last bit of his old life he has left to him struck me as reminiscent of a Roald Dahl story. Don’t like where you are? Then float away to somewhere else in your own house using a bunch of balloons! That’s a totally Roald Dahl-ish kind of story to tell. Likewise, the friendship between an old man and an awkward young kid put me in mind of another favorite kid-lit author of mine, John Bellairs. I loved the movie pretty much up until the inevitable moment when it’s finally revealed what became of the adventurer whose exploits Carl and Ellie had worshiped as children.
To be fair, I didn’t hate what ensued from that point in the movie. The talking dogs are pretty funny, after all. And the film’s use of flight as a motif seemed to be a nice homage to the work of Hayao Miyazaki. The problem I had is that until we meet the old adventurer in his old zeppelin, everything in the movie seems new and fresh, while everything that happens after that just seemed routine. All of the film’s magic and whimsy disappears as it becomes another race-against-time, chase-the-bad-guy-before-he-can-do-something-awful kind of flick. It greatly disappointed me that a movie as astonishingly good in its first half, so full of imagination and spirit, has an ending that involves fisticuffs and heroes dangling precariously above terrifying heights while the villain cackles. If only the filmmakers had had enough imagination to give Up a conclusion that didn’t let the first half of their film down so far.
I’m not down on Pixar per se, but I must admit that their recent films haven’t thrilled me as much as they have many others. I’m rooting for them to return to form. Perhaps they’ll surprise me with Toy Story 3, a sequel which just doesn’t strike me as particularly necessary. We’ll see. As I said, Pixar has yet to make a bad film.