Friday, August 28, 2009

Up (Peter Docter, Bob Peterson, 2009)


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


Marianne said...

I got bored! I fell asleep! For only an hour, though -- since this movie is rather long, at least for an animated feature, I was still able to catch the big denoument, where octogenarian demonstrates the amazing strength of his biceps by rescuing boy, dog, zeppelin, and so forth and so on -- ha. ha. ha. All this without being the type who works out.

Noel Vera said...

I think you can tell when a filmmaker is confident enough to show you something different and is sure you'll be drawn in, that you'll follow no matter what he put onscreen. I get that from Miyazaki; I don't get that from near every Pixar film I've seen. They throw in sentiment, slapstick, spectaculars, anything to keep your attention, keep you awake. Miyazaki assumes you're smart, you want to know what happens next, and goes about his business. 100 percent focus on what he wants to do. Keeping your attention, that's part of the fat Miyazaki doesn't indulge in.

B. Vergara said...

I rather liked "Up" a little more than you did, but I do agree that the works of Lasseter and Co. don't even come close to that of his idol's. "Up" still suffers from that Hollywood impulse to turn every cartoon into an amusement park ride -- indeed, one of the great things about "Ponyo" is how quiet it is for long stretches of the film. But "Up" is surely a step in the right direction, I think.

p.s. In my entry on "Up" on my blog, I was 99% sure that you had written something about Miyazaki being the preeminent depictor of flight, or words to that effect, but I couldn't for the life of me find any references to it! =)

Noel Vera said...

For Pixar to take an important next step, they should have a bittersweet, or unhappy ending. And someone we care for should die late in the film.

Is that so, re: Miyazaki and flight? I could have sworn I've mentioned it often enough. In the Nausicaa website, the email discussions, I think I say as much.

jayclops said...

I think I liked Up better than Wall-E. If Wall-E was like an homage to sci-fi and Up to the adventure story, what do you think will Pixar do next? I think it's a good year for animation, with Ponyo and Coraline and the upcoming 9.

Noel Vera said...

I suppose if I had to choose, yeah, Up over Wall-E. Wall-E is such a needy character--you can see him trying to jerk you for tears. At least the protagonist in Up doesn't try to much for pity, not until the end (though that first few minutes seems too sentimental (I know, I know, I'm probably alone on this)).

But it's night and day, the difference between Ponyo, Coraline, and Up. Not to mention Oshii's The Sky Crawlers.

DKL said...

I've been wondering about this for a very long while, but have you actually seen Oshii's PATLABOR 2 yet?

(you don't need to see the first movie, but it's still a good movie)

My favorite from him, probably.

(still deciding whether or not I like INNOCENCE better, but recent viewing has had me lean towards PATLABOR 2)

Also, in recent years, a little underrated anime gem has probably been Masayuki Kojima's PIANO FOREST; REALLY beautiful movie.

(on that note, Masayuki Kojima's TV adaptation of Naoki Urasawa's Monster will be airing on the Sci-fi channel next month; you should totally check it out since I remember that you vaguely enjoyed Master Keaton)

That said, I did like UP, but I can't really deny the arguments you propose in the article; yeah, there are actually specific scenes that seem set up in a way where they teach some kind of lesson to kids and whatever and I can kinda see how that would be annoying; like... it's not very seamless and it's just kinda "there".

But, I dunno... it was definitely a pleasant way to pass time; I was even kinda fond at how well coordinated the duel between two old men was done (and the movie was surprisingly unforgiving of its villain character, who himself didn't seem to have a lot of qualms about heartlessly dropping Russel out of the blimp thingy...)

And, I gotta admit, I was fond of the running jokes, childish as they were.

Noel Vera said...

Patlabor 2 over Innocence? I should check it out. Have you seen The Sky Crawlers, then? Or The Amazing Fast Food Grifters?

I liked Mann's latest; I think I have an article on this blog, if you look for it...

DKL said...

You have an article for Public Enemies?

If that's the case, I can't seem to find it on the front page.

That said, I actually got Sky Crawlers on Blu-Ray (it looks good); I really liked it, though it is strange that Oshii claims that it's radically different from most of his other movies.

Like, people talk about how he lightened up the philosophical stuff and whatever, which I guess is the case with his latest (I think there's really only one part in the movie where a character breaks into a monologue shot with like a wide lens or whatever that is), but I wouldn't go so far as to say that he abandoned his sensibility as a filmmaker; he still makes a very DISTINCT product, despite his attempts to tell the story differently from how he usually does it.

(so it's different, but not too different?)

I mean, like, the casualness of the Kildren going about daily life has a very mature quality to it that you'd really only see in an Oshii movie.

Also, there's the idea that the Kildren are kind of in this world between childhood and adulthood that manages to come through the work pretty subtle-like; it's a really layered movie and I feel like the only reason why this is successful is because Oshii does it with his distinct sensibility; he doesn't have his animated actors act too obviously like kids, for example.

It's not necessarily a new story [even in anime]; anime has a lot of stories of people who aren't quite adults that get pushed into war conflicts because of their special abilities (stuff like Gundam, for example)... but if there was a glaring difference between, say, Saikano and Oshii's movie, the first thing I'd say is that Oshii's movie isn't stupid and/or childish (Saikano's world-view is essentially dominated by the idea that everyone in the world is longing for their boyfriend or girlfriend... and there exist no other problem that is as important as tragic love).

He has a deep understanding of how the real world works, but then filters it through his lens to tell an interesting story.

While some critics have likened the conflict in Sky Crawlers to the conundrum of the otaku (stay-home nerds, such as myself), I feel like the movie touches on a broad range of things (which Oshii seems to have said himself)... everything from nerd-ship, to working a dead-end corporate job, both of which supposedly don't change in condition unless you die, much like the conundrum of the Kildren whose only purpose in life is corporate warfare.

But, as the end of the film points out, it's actually possible to change things despite the hopelessness of it all; while we're not necessarily there to witness how this happens, there's a very strong implication in the final scene in the movie [after the credits] where Kusanagi has a different air to her when she meets the base's new pilot: things have remained the same, but something in her has changed.

And I like that Oshii gives this change a lot of weight, but doesn't flaunt it around as to make it so obvious; that smile on Kusanagi's face was pretty much a perfect way to end the movie.

But, yeah... really liked it.

That said, you should totally check out Patlabor 2; it's a really amazing movie that talks about stuff like Japan's security treaty with the US and the irony of Japan's self-defense army (the opening sequence is a troop of Japanese soldiers out on a peace-keeping mission for the UN; when they are attacked by guerrillas during the mission, their superiors order them to not fight back).

Noel Vera said...

I don't see how it's different when all his films seem so different; even Ghost in the Shell and Innocence seem to deviate from each other.

Yes, there's that underacting (or no acting at all), and the tendency to zone out and intone philosophical profundities, and that's still here, as you point out. Maybe because it's an adapted work? But so are the Chost in the Shell movies. Maybe because it's a combination of digital animation and hand drawn? Didn't Innocence have some of that already? I wonder what he's talking about.

My mistake, I haven't put up my Public Enemy article yet. I do have something on Sky Crawlers, you might want to check that out....

DKL said...

Actually, there is an article where Toshio Suzuki interviews Oshii and they talk about Ponyo:


Some bits are there about his claims that this movie is radically different...

Anyway, I'm actually still not very sure how it's different as he proposes it to be, and I'm really only aware of the fact that this is something he himself claims.

(could it be because there's a love story? I dunno... there's a lot of hints of romance in both Ghost in the Shell movies and Patlabor 2... there's stuff in the article about less dialog, so I guess that could be it... but, yeah... I don't know)

Noel Vera said...

In Ghost in the Shell the attraction was there but barely acknowledged. Here there is explicit attraction, even a bedroom scene, if I remember right.

Not sure about the lack of dialogue. I've always thought there was a stillness at the heart of Oshii's films.

Interesting about Ponyo--I think Oshii's comments are right, that's what keeps Ponyo from being a great Miyazaki film. It's just an extraordinary animated film, by dint of sheer style alone.

DKL said...

That pause at the end of Innocence, to me, was one of the most romantic things I've ever seen in a movie, actually; only minimal dialog is needed to understand the depth of how they feel for each other.

That said, it's interesting how, despite the lack of sex in Oshii's movies, the characters in Sky Crawlers can go about sex so casually and realistically; I really liked that it wasn't fussy about that (in general, animu is pretty fussy about actually moving relationships forward, so by that merit alone is a reason why Sky Crawlers would be considered refreshing).

As for me, I really enjoyed Ponyo.

I don't know if it's Miyazaki's best (and even then, it'd be hard to choose anyway, but I seem to be really fond of Kiki, Howl's and Mononoke and this), but it was a lot of fun; I can't think of many other movies where characters shifting objects around in their arms was so interesting.

It's REALLY detailed; during the scene where Ponyo falls asleep int he boat and Sosuke has to go out to paddle, he jumps in the water first, but then realizes that he hasn't removed his binoculars and hat... so he removes them, while in the water, and then chucks them back into the boat; it's so damn brilliant because it's meticulously calculated and staged, yet the audience isn't necessarily aware of this.

OH and did you remmeber the typhoons?

It blew me away given how accurately Miyazaki nailed it; reminded me of the Philippines at a lot of points because of all the small little details, actually.

Noel Vera said...

The storm sequence was awesome. Wish Hishaishi had thought to do more than channel Ride of the Valkyries, though.

Amazing thing about Ponyo is that there's as much marvel to be had from Lisa fixing dinner as there was in watchign Fujimoto feed the fish his magic potions. The extraordinary is made familiar, the familiar magical.

I remember the feelings in Innocence as being intense, but buried. Sky Crawlers may be the rare time when it's out in the open.

Read my Sky Crawlers bit yet?

DKL said...

This one, right?

Yeah, of course I read your Sky Crawlers thing a while back; I even shared it with people at my message board.

I wouldn't know too much about the author comparisons though.

Noel Vera said...

No, the similiarities are remarkable. If you've seen the Spielberg film, that's really not what Ballard was about; Sky Crawler is much closer in tone and mood.

DKL said...

Well, I've not seen the Spielberg movie either.

On that note, the last thing I saw from him was "Catch me if you can", actually (which I checked out because of the article you wrote).

That one was a lot of fun.

Noel Vera said...

You saw Catch? Good. Forget Empire. Or check out Empire, read the book, tell me what you think. Read the book first.

Best John Williamss score, I think, Catch.

DKL said...

Book reading... a little hard to get done; I'm an Econ major at UC Berkeley and I'm like staring at a proof in Game Theory for like 2 hours and it STILL doesn't make any sense.

I'll be honest: leisure book reading is something that I really don't see myself doing in my free time...

As for John Williams, I think of Star Wars when I hear his name, so I'm assuming that the score for "The Long Goodbye" isn't characteristic as well?

But I'm not sure... either way, that was a cool movie as well; Robert Altman is... really clever: there's this great cut to the hospital after Marlowe gets hit by a car and we initially think that it's him in the bandages... but a wider shot reveals that it's actually a dude lying next to Marlowe.

I dunno... I thought that that was funny.

Noel Vera said...

It's friggin' hilarious. The Long Goodbye is one of my favorite Altmans, and one of my favorite of a genre I call sunshine noir--darkness and corruption in a city drenched in sunlight.

The score there isn't typical. Altman's making fun of repetitive theme songs, so he has the theme of Long Goodbye playing maybe a dozen times, all different kind of ways.

Then again check out California Split--either you think it's mind numbingly boring or one of the loveliest movies you've ever seen.

I do think Ballard's worth checking out. Get one of his short story collections, if you're doubtful.

VinnyLT said...

i thought UP was fantastic. Wall-E was a little hard for me to sit through. But to each his own.

Noel Vera said...

Agree with you on Wall.E.

Check out Ponyo, Coraline, Sky Crawlers.