Saturday, May 30, 2009

Up Fails to Lift Animation Up and Out of the Sandbox

Perhaps more clichéd and predictable than a Wilhelm scream in an old B-movie, Pixar has ‘done it again’, and has produced a film that has triumphed amongst critics, strikingly, with an almost universe reception that almost never greets live action films of all genres. Sure, critics fall for certain films, but for every film that is hailed, there are individuals in which that film just didn’t resonate with them. But Pixar appears to be the only company who can consistently enlist the passionate applause of most critics and audiences. There is one little catch, however. Their films are under represented at one ‘important’ award show, the Oscars, in which the awards they receive are not congruent with the praise they receive. It is however, a minor speed bump. With plenty of box office offset by the devoted audiences’ expectation of quality and the miraculous, often magical, amount of praise they receive by critics (and thusly, opinions held in the contrary ignite flame wars by Pixar lovers who haven’t even seen the movie), it’s undeniable that Pixar’s presence is a force.

A force that will ‘corrupt’ American animation. Or at least, sanitize it to the point of hair-pulling padded, cookie cutter and conceptualized formula built to send hands in the air and for smiles to spread among the adults in the audiences like weeds in a field. Pixar’s films rarely diverge from nudging and cutesy ‘cornball’ humor; delving into the cleanliness and safety of old style charm. The films often feel like they were created by a graduate of Hollywood film appreciation 101; they often emote with rousing scores and pacing humor that reminds me of films from cherished screwball comedies of film history’s past. And of course, some of the emotion is real; it is the same that exists in most American families. The same emotion that can be seen being exploited in peanut butter commercials. The type of emotion that has become the staple in what audiences expect from any film that’s animated in this country. Animated equates to a heart-warming story with characters we love to quote, right? Which isn’t to say that this isn’t a valid aspect of expression in film. Yet, the lack of critical fore-thought regarding Pixar’s latest release, Up, is rather disheartening.

While the film is certainly something worth watching, and you can admire the heart within, the film is still weighted down by flaws even more apparent than in last year’s WALL·E, as the story archetypes and much of the filling elements come off as just there to progress the story, or perhaps, to have one. At least WALL·E had the incredibly detailed and superficially accessible imagery and the contrast of vast reality played to affectionate cuteness to engage audiences into thinking it was a sci-fi masterpiece.

Up, for me, seemed more promising, due to lack of an outright appealing environment as opposed to WALL·E, but toward the middle I found myself shaking my head at the forced villain-ary and the right on schedule story patters typical of the ‘cgi animated family genre’. The film again becomes a journey of emotional discovery, where annoying fun characters hop on along the way, and eventually help develop our protagonist. I don’t think I can adequately express how sad it is that animation is simply just a medium, yet our animation almost NEVER breaks these typical molds. Think of all the live action genres, and then contemplate what has been done in cgi. Yet, as Pixar continues to remain ‘cream of the crop’, with claims their films are ‘the best of the year’, why would Pixar do something different (like Coraline or Monster House) when they can be safe and praised? And in effect, why would any other animation studio want to do so?

I’m not exactly keen on the elements that make Pixar stand out, aside from their use of a medium that commonly is starved of artistic intent outside of the animation. Although I imagine their success hails from that their films are patterned and decorated with the element of fantasy fable, like an enjoyable story book for the whole family. That, with cgi still being relatively new, creates the feel of freshness and sincerity. The simplicity emotes like film’s first start, and any added thematic intricacies just add to the wide-eyed wonder.

Yet, I can’t say I’m too pleased that Pixar remains the constant force of Hollywood films. Although part of me respects Up, despite it's constructed emotion and some stilted sentiment, for at least lacking the flash of WALL·E, which is quickly becoming my least favorite Pixar film (and the most manipulative). At least within Up, there is a sense of genuine in portions that comes off less cynically aimed toward critical approval (glossing up the same trite childishness) and I didn’t feel like I was being belittled emotionally. And the story is more inventive, I think, in a whimsy sort of way. My favorite Pixar film remains Toy Story, and I do hope to see at least, more films by Pixar that use their sentiment to create more of a uniform balance between the cute and the style, since this is the distinction of directing at Pixar.


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