I. To dream the impossible
Far as I can see Pixar’s Up (Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, 2009) is very in with critics (Liza Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly says it’s a “lovely, thoughtful and, yes, uplifting adventure;” Richard Corliss of Time Magazine calls it Pixar’s “most deeply emotional and affecting work;” heavyweight film critic Roger Ebert declares it “another masterwork from Pixar, which is leading the charge in modern animation”), and most audiences too ($288 million in US boxoffice receipts as of this writing, with another hundred million in foreign receipts--cream off the top, in effect). There’s no reason to believe Filipinos, who can barely resist lovely, thoughtful, deeply emotional and affecting masterworks of uplift (that at the same time lead animated charges), will not respond to the picture.
And it does begin well--one thing I can say for Pixar’s movies nowadays, or at least their last two movies, they do have a neat, unfrenetic way of introducing themselves. Wall-E opened with a silent pantomime of a lonely robot abandoned on a garbage dump-planet lasting some thirty minutes; Up opens with a mere four minutes of wordless animation, but does ratchet up the pathos quotient a notch higher--basically a young boy and girl meet, fall in love, promise each other an impossible dream, then before they realize it find themselves too old to achieve said dream.
To dream the impossible--you might say this is the unspoken mantra of American animation, the spoonful of moral to help convince parents to allow the sugary to drop down unsuspecting children’s throats. Carl (Ed Asner) happens to dream a little more impossibly than most: he wants to lift his entire house up with a couple of thousand balloons (Someone actually went ahead and did the math, estimating that yes, it’s possible to lift a house with the hundred thousand plus balloons on display--but one wonders what, with that much helium hidden away under the house, kept the house from taking off earlier? What kind of string do those balloons use? How could Carl have afforded all this on a pension?) and whisk it away to Paradise Falls, South America (no such place, of course, but the layout--slim falls, vertiginously high plateau, impossible rock spike to the right--looks suspiciously like a similar spot in Harry O. Hoyt’s The Lost World (1925). Let’s call it an homage, and move on).
Pixar would like you to think they’re doing original work; they’d like you to think “Oh! A flying house, how original!” when Hayao Miyazaki has already had a castle walk (Hauru no ugoku shiro (Howl’s Moving Castle, 2004)) and, some eighteen years earlier, fly (Tenku no shiro Rapyuta (Castle in the Sky, 1986), based on an idea by Jonathan Swift, almost three hundred years ago). Some flying sequences here, particularly the aerial battles, look as if they had been inspired by Castle; a crucial subplot--of an explorer discredited and vowing to return for further proof--seems to have been borrowed from the aforementioned Lost World silent, only here Professor Challenger is seen as a villain and not hero. They’d like you to think just because they use a robot, or a rat, or an old man for a main character they’re doing something different when they’re really just telling the same old story (dream the impossible) the same old way, with superficial dressing on top.
II. There’s no place like home
For all the ostensible wanderlust on display by heroes in American animation, the movies betray a not inconsiderable amount of nostalgic conservatism. After all is said and done it’s not your dream that counts, it’s the life you’ve actually lived; it’s not what you take home from some exotic land, it’s how you treat the people around you--the first is actually realized in the main character’s dramatic arc, the second in that subplot stolen--sorry, inspired by--The Lost World. Perfectly good moral lessons, of course, but the point and my main objection is that they’re almost always treated as lessons, as teachable moments and not subversive messages smuggled into the subconscious while you’re engaged in the ostensible story.
Note the difference in Miyazaki’s films, which Pixar head John Lasseter professes to admire: the moral of the story isn’t so much hammered home as it is mentioned in passing--the man makes his themes palatable by introducing them lightly, little to no hammering involved at all.
For example: Miyazaki’s latest work Gake no ue no Ponyo (Ponyo, 2008) is all about a search for “balance.” Miyazaki is a little vague about what’s supposed to be balanced, but never mind--we actually see the theme in action, in the form of pollution and debris fouling the otherwise clear waters surrounding a small fishing town: humans are abusing their relationship with nature, and the result is garbage choking the town’s waterways. But Miyazaki doesn’t allow said theme to stagnate for long; he has Fujimoto (a Captain Nemo-like figure) drive his submarine forward, pushing the heavily metaphorical flotsam aside to make way for story. Heroes in Miyazaki films are too busy, have too little time for what really matters to them to let such issues as “clarifying the morality of the situation” drag the audience down. They make their point, they move on; the audience, intrigued, follows; they are either proven right or learn better, and then move further on. That’s the mark of a storyteller.
That’s not to say Miyazaki’s films are loud and relentlessly fast-paced; he allows for quieter moments, like Sosuke poking around at the beach, or observing the prize swimming in his water bucket. These moments, though, are so expertly paced and superbly realized (no one does quotidian moments in animation better than Miyazaki, far as I know, except maybe for his colleague, Isao Takahata) one can’t think of them as extraneous, or indulgent. For all the apparent leisureliness of his storytelling, Miyazaki’s films have very little fat.
I might add that while Pixar has done its latest in state-of-the-art digital 3-D animation, which pretty much looks alike in all its movies (oh, a few new effects here and there--peacock feathers, for one), Miyazaki continues to prove that there’s still room for innovation in 2-D hand-drawn animation. In Ponyo he’s opted for an unfinished look, with brushstrokes visible and backgrounds at times sketched out. The effect looks spontaneous, even lively--one thinks this is how Van Gogh might do an animated film, if he were handed an enormous box of colored pencils.
III. Leading the charge in modern animation
That’s Miyazaki; a far more dramatically contrasting case on an ostensibly more similar storyline can be made with Mamoru Oshii’s contemporaneous Sukai kurora (The Sky Crawlers, 2008). Oshii’s film deals with aeronauts, with fighter pilots instead of balloonists; there are flight sequences, even dogfights aplenty, but there all similarity ends. The pilots don’t know what they’re fighting for (themes about impossible dreams fly out the window right there), how they got there, and for whom, exactly, they fight. All they know is that their rival pilots are from rival corporations, corporate warfare at its most spectacular and nonsensical (and unhypocritical).
Incidentally, where Miyazaki uses traditional animation digitally enhanced and Pixar uses exclusively digital animation, Oshii mixes both--the human characters and detailed foreground objects are visibly hand-drawn, while the fighter planes straining and roaring in mid-flight are composed on a computer; Oshii manages to combine the non-organic realism of digital with the expressiveness and subtlety of hand-drawn to great effect.
Miyazaki’s been called “The Walt Disney of Japan;” that in my book is an accusation, not a compliment. In the case of Oshii his sensibilities are so alien to Disney it’s hilarious--I can see the older animator shaking the younger’s hand, sensing the thoughts wriggling like electric eels beneath the skin, and flinching . Much closer to Oshii’s thinking (not to mention imagination and sense of disaffection) would be J.G. Ballard; I’d go so far as to say the film is basically Ballard’s autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun done right, without the Spielbergian frippery or sentiment. Compared to Oshii’s (and Miyazaki’s, for that matter), Pixar’s latest is a sad, sad afterbirth of an afterthought, seeking to catch up with the frontrunners.
First published in Businessworld, 8.21.09