Bottoms Up

I’ve been looking for the Hot Blog or “Blanky Weeks to Oscar” piece in which David Poland predicts that Pixar’s Up will win the Best Picture Oscar. Because that’s what he’s been saying in conversation and presumably believes and intends to state in well-ordered prose sometime fairly soon. If he’s saying that Up should win, fine…no problem, his opinion. But if he’s serious about Up actually taking the Big Prize then I’m flabbergasted.

Up will be lucky to be Best Picture nominated. Enough people believe this may happen that I’ve allowed myself to be goaded into predicting that Up may wind up as one of the ten. But I don’t think it should, and a lot of others feel the same way. My argument all along (and here we go with the old Rio Grande routine) is that animation is Mexico and live-action is the U.S. of A., and never the twain should meet.

Mexican artists should be proud of their own turf and celebrate their unique flavor and culture and personality and brushstrokes…the wholeness that is theirs and theirs alone. Did Luis Bunuel need to be embraced by the mainstream Hollywood industry to feel validated? Of course not, and neither should Pixar or Disney animated features (among others) need the endorsement of the Best Picture category to feel as if they’ve really made it. The Best Animated Feature Oscar is a huge honor. It should be more than sufficient.

But even if people are determined to ignore this reasoning, Up — as I said during the Cannes Film Festival several months ago — is “a fairly square and tidy thing…a spiritually uplifting ride that is nonethless too immersed in buoyant punchiness and mainstream movie-tude, which basically boils down to Pixar’s always-front-and-center task of giving the family audience stuff to laugh at and go ‘oooh’ and ‘aahh’ about, to finally matter all that much. It’s too entertaining, to put it another way, to sink in all that deeply.”

The Up themes are, of course, universally stirring. Perhaps too stirring or, put another way, too all-over-the-map. You’re really working all corners of the room when your film is about warming your heart, the blooming of love, finding your dreams, making a family, dropping your guard, standing up for your friends, finding courage and fulfillment, nurturing the past (as well as letting go of it) and embracing the now. It’s like Up is a politician saying anything he thinks will strike a chord with voters and thereby get himself elected.

Up revels in this thematic smorgsasbord “and in a peppy, delightful and at times Chaplinesque way,” I noted. “Particularly in a silent sequence that tells the story of loving marriage over the course of seventy years or so. And without going cheap or coarse. It’s about as good as this sort of thing gets.”

But I sure didn’t see Up as a metaphor for anything in my life, I can tell you. It’s just a high-strung animated story with a lot of gee-gosh stuff going on and some recognizable heart-and-spirit issues propelling the two main characters.

And I really and truly think there’s something ill-advised about a film creating a morbidly obese adolescent character, Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai), since the Up makers knew full well that this balloon-shaped kid represents a high percentage of American kids today, and that this would subliminally be seen as a kind of endorsement of obesity, which is as dangerous and deadly as drug usage. Would Pixar have gone with a Russell who snorts heroin or sips whiskey out of a flask? Of course not, but an obese Russell is fine because half the kids in the malls today look like him so what’s the problem, right? Our life, our country, our culture…diseased and heading for a fall.

31 thoughts on “Bottoms Up

  1. Up is a brilliant film, Pixar’s best work to date, and easily one of the best movies of 2009. I hope it gets one of the 10 slots.

  2. love how u tried to find a bunch of things wrong with it BEFORE ur real reasoning showed up in the last paragraph. nice misdirection sir

  3. Up is a politician saying anything he thinks will strike a chord with voters and thereby get himself elected.

    It’s like you totally plucked that out of my head, and phrased it better than I ever could have. The first and third acts are sublime, but the Dreamworks Animation-esque middle almost takes the whole film down. If they had found a way to develop their second act a bit more, and develop their villain – find the poignancy in his character and connect him to the film’s themes – than they would definitely have a Best Picture contender on their hands. But here, I don’t see it.

    UP and WALL*E are probably the two most ambitious commercial films released in the 00s. But part of the problem of swinging for the fences every time is when you miss, it’s noticeable.

  4. “But if he’s serious about Up actually taking the Big Prize then I’m flabbergasted. … It’s like Up is a politician saying anything he thinks will strike a chord with voters and thereby get himself elected.”

    Why be flabbergasted? It worked for Obama.
    :-)

  5. Oh Jeez. Up is a great film. It’s somewhat formulaic in the way all of Pixar’s movies are. They are after all a studio that invests hundreds of millions into a movie that needs to make money so that they can continue making movies. Wall*E already threw a curve ball to the average movie goer with its “message”. Up just happens to be more friendly if you will. The chubby…fine morbidly obese boy scout character, is a cartoon character. He looks like a human egg for sakes. The old man’s chin is larger than his chest. Houses also can’t rip themselves out of the ground and fly away with a few hundred helium balloons attached.

    Anyway, this is just another one of Jeff’s bitter columns aimed at his arch enemy which could just be about anyone.

  6. Jeff,

    So your knock against UP winning Best Picture seems to be:

    (1) It’s too entertaining and stirring (“Dammit, I can’t vote for this film for Best Picture — it’s just too damn entertaining and stirring!”)

    (2) It didn’t resonate with anything in your own life. That’s fine, but that’s a subjective and personal reaction.

    (3) It’s animated, and those animated films need to know their place and stay on their own side of the fence.

    I’m sorry, but filmmaking is filmmaking, and storytelling is storytelling, whether it’s live-action or animated or whatever.

    Best Picture means best picture — not best English-language picture, or best non-documetary fiction picture, or best non-animated picture.

    Just the best friggin’ movie that got made that year.

    Your bias against animated films — at least as explained above, in your Rio Grande metaphor — doesn’t seem to be grounded in any sort of reasoned basis or rational argument.

    Do you think that animated films are somehow not “real” films? Do you think they have some kind of unfair advantage over live-action films? Are they a lesser art form somehow?

    The people who make animated films — the writers, directors, DPs, editors, etc. — are dealing with the exact same problems and issues as their live-action counterparts: structuring a story, staging a scene, eliciting a performance, etc.

    It’s the same damn thing. Movies are movies.

    Your bias against animated films being considered for Best Picture is exactly that — a bias.

    An irrational, emotional, don’t-want-’em-on-this-side-of-the-river, keep-’em-away-from-my-daughter, why-can’t-they-be-happy-with-”separate-but-equal” bias.

    At least that’s what it seems, based on your post above.

    The boundaries are starting to blur anyway. Is AVATAR an animated film? If so, should it also be disqualified from the Best Picture race? Once you start splitting hairs like this, there’s no end to it. And making these distinctions seems to go against the spirit of the Best Picture award, which is simply to recognize the year’s best film, in whatever form it takes.

    Perhaps, though, your case against animated films being considered for Best Picture is grounded in a more soundly reasoned, rational basis.

    If it is, I would love to hear that argument.

    But the Rio Grande metaphor isn’t an argument.

    It’s a prejudice, pure and simple, and not one (methinks) that should be shared by anyone who loves cinema, in all its forms.

  7. Wells, by this rationale do you feel the same about Foreign Language films being nominated for Best Picture? Because they have their category, too.

  8. The case for animation not being able to represent a “real” movie experience is ignorant and populist. Stop insulting the people of Pixar, who put more effort into “Up” than most of the middlebrow pap you celebrate on this site.

  9. Wells to 701: You can put on your Fred Astaire dance shoes and go clickety-clack all over the shiny ballroom floor, and it doesn’t change the fact that naturalism — capturing or using life as it organically exists to the naked eye — is one form of filmmaking, and creating life from animation of any form (hand-drawn, hand-painted, CG, whatever) is another form of filmmaking that is separate and distinct. And that’s the way it is. Anyone who says that these forms are being blended into one big thing and that soon there will be no such thing as naturalism is taking drugs.

    Naturalism is an aesthetic and a faith and an overpowering principle on the planet earth, and you can’t just sashay in and say, “Okay, no more naturalism or at least not as you knew it before” because naturalism is right where you live, right outside your door, out on the street, etc. It’s the world as IT IS, and not with any whizbang bullshit Tinkerbell bells and whistles, whoo-whoo. I don’t know what Avatar is like in its entirety but the animated portions on Pandora look and feel like top-drawer animation in a 3D form. After watching the 24 minute product reel in San Diego I was saying to myself, “This is very cool and stunning but it’s basically a very cool and stunning CG cartoon.”

    If you’re saying there is no such thing as pure naturalism any more then you need to get down to Laredo and wade across the Rio Grande and get over to Mexico and stay there. I know of some very cool places to stay in Vera Cruz, San Blas, Playa del Carmen. There’s a healthy supply of mescaline and lots of CG pills and other reality-defying substances down there, and you’ll be happy. I don’t know about you but I live and was born into and will die in the United States of Naturalism, and that’s not an act of defiance — I’m talking about God’s Cathedral, and that holy environment demands respect and allegiance.

  10. I don’t understand the accolades for Up. It felt like a Dreamworks product to me. The biplane-flying dogs, the cutesy voices, the lame villain….I was half-expecting a hip-hop dance sequence to break out. The only good part was the “entire life” montage of the old guy. But there was no serious character development afterword.

    I would bet any amount of money that if you cornered Brad Bird and gave him truth serum, he would agree that Up is utterly unremarkable. The most entertaining portion on the Bluray is the bit about the animators getting to travel to Venezuela.

  11. “If you’re saying there is no such thing as pure naturalism any more then you need to get down to Laredo and wade across the Rio Grande and get over to Mexico and stay there. I know of some very cool places to stay in Vera Cruz, San Blas, Playa del Carmen. There’s a healthy supply of mescaline and lots of CG pills and other reality-defying substances down there, and you’ll be happy. I don’t know about you but I live and was born into and will die in the United States of Naturalism, and that’s not an act of defiance — I’m talking about God’s Cathedral, and that holy environment demands respect and allegiance.”

    Is Wells becoming the Lou Dobbs of film criticism? This is bizarre stuff.

  12. Jeff,

    That’s fine. You have a preference for the aesthetic of naturalism. But that’s an issue of personal taste.

    It’s like representational painting vs. abstract art. Maybe you prefer Rembrandt or Norman Rockwell to Brancusi or Rothko.

    Fine — that’s your preference, and I take no issue with it.

    But are you going to argue that Brancusi or Rothko can’t be considered artists in the same league with R or NR simply because they don’t work in the same naturalist tradition?

    That they don’t deserve the same shot at acclaim and honor just because they work in a non-representational tradition that you, personally, don’t like?

    I’m not disagreeing with you or your aesthetics.

    I just want you to acknowledge that your bias against animated films being considered for Best Picture is exactly that — a personal bias based on your own aesthetics, ie your preference for naturalism.

    Unless you want to argue that every member of the Academy should share your personal aesthetics, and that the aesthetic of naturalism is inherently, a priori, a superior aesthetic.

    Do you also want to argue that Norman Rockwell is a “better” artist than Rothko? That Rothko shouldn’t even be in the same league as NR?

    My point is that film is film, and storytelling is storytelling.

    What gets chosen as “best” is emotional and subjective.

    If a non-naturalistic film has a stronger emotional impact and a deeper philosophical resonance with an Academy member, are you going to argue that s/he shouldn’t vote for it because it’s the wrong aesthetic choice?

    You seem to be universalizing your own preferences, and turning a personal bias — towards naturalism — into an across-the-board rule that should apply to everyone.

  13. I can see Spirits Away winning the Best Picture Oscar but not Up.

    About Pixar endorsing obesity by having a fat kid in Up, are other film companies endorsing murderers, thieves, adulterers, smokers, alcoholics, sex addicts, foul-language speaking people, etc. by having them in their movies? Of course not. Because that’s reality. Just like it’s reality that fat kids exist in this country. I guess you have to be like Precious to get a green light to have a fat kid in a movie these days.

  14. Separate categories, period. I don’t want those CG animators on my front lawn…kidding! But seriously, I’ll be happy to change the metaphor to animation being Canada rather than Mexico — that sounds less Lou Dobbsy. I personally relate more to Fred C. Dobbs but that takes it back to Mexico again.

  15. Let me be a little more clear here, because this is starting to irk me:

    Jeff is arguing for a policy of segregation.

    Jeff is arguing that animated films simply don’t, and can never, deserve a seat a the grown-ups table — the Best Picture race.

    That “animation is Mexico and live-action is the U.S. of A., and never the twain should meet.”

    Jeff is promoting the exclusion of an entire medium from Best Picture consideration, based on his own aesthetics.

    That is, frankly, an insult to anyone who loves or works in animation.

    I’m arguing for openness — any goddamn film that satisfies the Academy’s entry requirements ought to be open to consideration for best picture.

    If Jeff prefers naturalism, fine — more power to him.

    But to be actively promoting a policy of segregation and exclusion — separate-but-equal — is just wrong.

    Let the best picture win Best Picture, whether it’s live-action, animation, documentary, non-English-language, or whatever.

    ‘Nuff said. Over and out.

  16. What this whole thread misses is that Best Animated Feature IS the best picture race as far as most people are concerned. You’ve got a bunch of movies they did see in that category, and a bunch of movies no one saw in the Best Picture category. No contest. The real question is, will Avatar get nominated for Best Animated Feature and break out of the live-action ghetto?

  17. “which basically boils down to Pixar’s always-front-and-center task of giving the family audience stuff to laugh at and go ‘oooh’ and ‘aahh’ about, to finally matter all that much.”

    What? But Pixar movies are the best ever, Jeff! How can you not like how creative they are with their over-reliance on vibrant colors, whimsical characters, and harmless fun? I mean, you can even tell some of them apart from one another every once in a while!

    400: I think Jeff’s issue is with the fact that this is a general audience film endorsing such self-destructive behavior.

  18. I’ve never understood what’s so enthralling about animated movies that rely on DIALOGUE to tell a story. Voiced by easily-recognized celebrities at that, who break the spell every time their mouths open. (Hearing Meryl and Clooney coo in the commercials for Mr. Fox is a major disconnect if I’m supposed to buy into the notion of herky-jerky furry puppets coming to life.) Animation should liberate filmmakers to reinvent the wheel, not copy it. The Triplets of Belleville is the only animated flick I’ve seen in years that deserved a Best Picture nomination, simply because it pushed the boundaries of the medium and told a story with imagery and music instead of sitcom-speak.

  19. Oh suck it up 701 and stop being such a soft cock. The whole point of being a cinephile is fighting for your aesthetic principles and framing in terms of civil rights with terms like segregationalist is totally bogus. The pathway to modern cinema was paved by the French New Wave boys at Cahiers who argued that filmmakers who embodied a certain aesthetic shouldn’t even be allowed to make films anymore.

  20. What this whole thread misses is that Best Animated Feature IS the best picture race as far as most people are concerned. You’ve got a bunch of movies they did see in that category, and a bunch of movies no one saw in the Best Picture category. No contest. The real question is, will Avatar get nominated for Best Animated Feature and break out of the live-action ghetto?

  21. Pixar subliminally endorsing obesity is a bullshit complaint and you know it, Wells. It was a specific design decision made by Pixar to contrast the blocky, boxed-in nature of Carl, the protagonist.

    Russell was also deliberately egg-shaped to represent 1.) Youth, 2.) Potential and 3.) Carl’s need to nurture and take care of him – to become the father figure lacking in his life.

    All of this is covered in the EXCELLENT supplementary materials included with the DVD release of the film.

    Your obesity argument is no worse than the right-wingers who chided Wall-E for promoting an environmental message. When the genesis of the story came from wanting to do a film about a lonely robot and working backwards from there.

  22. Does your argument for naturalism extend to films which, while not animated, are clearly not naturalistic? Would you suggest “2001: A Space Odyssey” should not compete with other films that do NOT contain abstract visuals or unconventional narratives?

    Even if “Up” is not THE best film of the year, I can’t think of 10 other films from 2009 that are better than it to keep it from the Academy’s final list of nominees. I have no problem with it competing against films that contain not a single frame of animation.

  23. “Maybe you prefer Rembrandt or Norman Rockwell to Brancusi or Rothko.”

    Wonder what Wells thinks of Botero. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

  24. arturo: Millennium Actress deserved the nom more than Triplets, but that Fleisher-inspired style goes better with older voters.

    Tom: “Pixar subliminally endorsing obesity is a bullshit complaint and you know it, Wells.”

    Except they make fun of it in Wall-E while selling candy tie-ins.

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