Monday, August 9, 2010

[Film Review] Up

A year before I graduated from college, my mom noticed that a mole I'd had on my cheek since birth had become a distinctly greenish tinge. I was all for letting it continue to mutate, in hopes of developing superpowers or at least enough of a hideous appearance that I'd have an excuse to pursue a career in supervillainy, but she insisted that I get it removed before I was no longer covered under her health insurance as a student. The dermatologist explained that he wouldn't be able to use the normal freeze-and-scrape method because the mole's roots were too deep under my skin, so instead he applied a local anesthetic and then cut it out by hand. While he was doing that, I still had enough sensation in my cheek to be able to feel the scalpel slicing through the flesh of my face and the subsequent stitching together of the incision, but those sensations were weirdly heightened by the lack of any accompanying pain. Up is the emotional equivalent of that experience. It's a bizarre but intriguing sensation to watch one's emotions be manipulated, and see it happening and understand how it's being done, and yet still be overwhelmed by that tidal pull.

Technically, the animation is very nearly perfect. The visual textures are nothing short of astonishing, so dense as to nearly invoke a sight/touch synaesthesia. The protagonist, especially, looks more like a puppet than anything conjured on a Mac workstation, perhaps a long-lost cousin to Statler and Waldorf. Light is also so lovingly rendered as to be nearly palpable, so much so that it's easy to forget that none of what's on the screen is actually a tangible presence in the world. The greatest feat that Up accomplishes is its ability to present images that are cartoonish and exaggerated, but to deliver them so convincingly that once the movie has ended, it's the real world that looks slightly out of true, designed with no sense of credible aesthetic sense.

The dialogue is as polished as everything else in the movie, but the characters are so expressive and the environments so calculated for effect that the voice acting is essentially superfluous. The voice actors do a great job of conveying text and subtext, but since there aren't any surprises in the dialogue, it feels like its inclusion was more a matter of habit than any kind of artistic necessity.

Up suffers from a close relative of a common film malady, that of the opening scene so powerful that it overshadows the rest of a movie which isn't ever able to rise to that level of intensity again. Here it's not the opening scene, but the one immediately succeeding it, which raises the bar for itself just a bit too high. After a scene of the protagonist as a child, there's a montage which shows him falling in love with his childhood sweetheart, marrying her, growing old with her, and then sitting alone at her funeral. It's a fiercely emotional sequence in which we're shown the outline of a wonderful person who's then abruptly snatched from us, and the rest of the story feels pale and predictable afterward.

Which isn't to say that it's not well-crafted. The narrative is honed and polished and sleek, obviously the product of much loving effort, but this precision works against itself. There isn't a single scene here in which we get the faintest hint of spontaneity, and there isn't room to breathe between any of the perfectly-crafted lines of dialogue, facial expressions and body language. That machine-like relentlessness possesses a kind of cold beauty, but it's the perfectly symmetrical beauty of an ant or robot, something so singularly devoted to its purpose that you can't help but admire it at the same time that you realize you couldn't possibly empathize with it.

The story arc is so smooth and flawless that there's nothing to grab onto, and though my emotional responses to every scene played out exactly how their creators calculated, the rigidity of that same craft made those responses feel strangely mechanical. (It's very likely that the amazing quality of the visuals and the starkly streamlined story have a direct relationship with each other. Based on how beautiful the film is, it must have taken many, many work-hours to produce, and that work would have needed to be thrown away if some deviation from the script had occurred while recording the voice acting. Hence, that acting needed to be extensively worked out beforehand, leaving little or no room for improvisation or even tonal differences on the part of the voice actors. Or maybe my speculations are entirely wrong. Note: Since this review went live, I have been informed by people who work in the animation industry that these speculations are, in fact, entirely wrong. Standard Pixar practice is to record the voice acting before work begins on the animation.) This tendency to treat the story with such exactitude strips away what should be an organic experience, making Up feel like the dance of simulacra much more than its animation ever does.


  1. This is a very lovely and useful review. Thank you.

  2. I agree that the montage scene at the beginning overshadowed the rest of the narrative, though the rest was still on par with Pixar's best. I do feel that the plot went a little far into the silly area, where I has hoping for a little more realism. An old explorer surrounded by hundred of trained, talking dogs in a story that to me should have been more close to the chest and emotional, seemed out of place.

  3. That's a great way to put it. The momma bird throughline would've been fine in another movie, but after the impact of the meditation on love and loss that opens the movie, it felt like it didn't belong.

    It has been pointed out in the thread started by this review that Pixar's mission statement is still making kids' movies, though, and without that silliness, Up probably wouldn't have had any appeal to kids.

  4. I look at a movie like Toy Story 3 as an example of a children's story handling some very mature subject matter (aging, life changes, and loss of innocence) in a respectful way. The beginning of Up was the same way. I don't think Toy Story went into the silly area as much as Up did.

    If you look at the whole Toy Story trilogy, it's quite melancholy.