After watching Pixar’s Up last evening, I’m beginning to wonder if Pixar is capable of making a bad film. Theirs is a track record nearly perfect beyond expectation; even their “worst” pictures are quality entertainment by any measure.
You all know Pixar. They’re the folks who brought us Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and other delights. From the very start their films were charming and entertaining. Only a soulless creature does not enjoy Toy Story. The thrills of The Incredibles are matched only by the warmth of the Parr family dynamic. Monsters, Inc. showed those other animation studios that crazy fun need not be stupid fun.
But even beyond the whimsical adventure, we’re starting to see that Pixar are masters of cinema in a way we just don’t see anymore. Not just animation. All cinema. Last year’s brilliant Wall-E opened with a bold and risky stroke of genius: 40-plus minutes of film without dialogue. And it worked. By god, did it work.
Pixar somehow managed to get millions to follow along with the forgotten subtlety possible in the artform, the stuff we too often see only from independent or “art house” directors. The power of a strong composition. Of body language (even from a robot). The subtle impact of well-chosen color. Of sound effects and of trusting the audience to follow yours cues. Popular cinema has been lately dominated by explosions, chases, and heavy-handed dialogue. Wall-E proved, however, that the language of film is more powerful than explosions.
Pixar may have upped the ante with, well, Up, a poignant, sad, heart-warming, funny, exciting picture that earns probably two dozen more adjectives. Once again, this film opens up with pure cinema at its finest. With the very essence of the art form, really. In the movie’s first ten minutes, Pixar uses the language of film to warm our hearts with a love story spanning decades, all while offering the essential information upon which the main story will be built. Absolutely every aspect of Up, from the characters to the MacGuffin to the action set pieces to the thematic and emotional core, is set up in the first few minutes.
(Heck, the first 90 seconds alone gives us the villain, his motivation, and the giant set piece that will be the scene of the thrilling climax., as well as the location towards which the story pushes and the creature that will eventually become not just a mere MacGuffin, but also a moral lesson for Mr. Fredricksen. Amazing.)
The prologue leads up to That Moment (if you’ve seen Up you know which moment I mean, if you haven’t, GO SEE UP!), a moment that provides the emotional weight the rest of the film needs. When the frame slides from the hospital room over to … how do you not get chocked up? Amazing. Effective. Perfect.
Without exaggeration, you could spend hours teaching the art of filmmaking with that prologue.
Pixar pulls this off despite this movie being ABSURD. Absurd, yet you never pause to think of it because you’re so engrossed in these people and this story. An elderly man flies his house to South America with balloons? Ridiculous! Heck, just think of the two leads. Trying to carry a family adventure movie with an elderly man and a bumbling faux Boy Scout, that was a bold choice by Pixar. A depressed senior citizen pining for his deceased wife is not the stuff of which family adventure flicks are made.
Yet Pixar pulls it off.
These people are amazing.
It’s really easy to come across like I’m gushing, and maybe I am, but I honestly don’t think this is hyperbole: Right now, Pixar are some of the best filmmakers on the planet, and some of the finest I’ve ever seen.
For more of my thoughts on film, check out my book, A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks with the Master of Suspense, or read my series on getting to know and love cinema, Diary of an Aspiring Film Snob.