(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)
Up is a truly outstanding film that I can strongly recommend to anyone.
This latest animation coming out of Pixar Studios tells the story of Carl, a 78-year old curmudgeonly man who, on the verge of being forced out of the home he lived in with his beloved late wife Ellie and sent to a retirement home, decides to carry out their unfulfilled joint childhood dream of following in the footsteps of a legendary explorer who disappeared long ago in South America in search of a mystical place called Paradise Falls that harbors an exotic bird that no one else believes exists.
The explorer used a blimp to travel and this inspires the old man to attach a huge number of helium balloons to his house and use it too as a blimp to get to his destination. But a complication arises when a little boy named Russell, a novice member of a children’s explorer’s club, accidentally ends up as a stowaway on his journey.
You get a good sense of the set up of the film from the trailer below, though it does not hint at what happens later.
The film has comedy and adventure in abundance and never drags. After watching it, it struck me how much superior it was to the film Avatar, despite all the hoopla generated by the latter. (See my review of Avatar.) Both films are fantasy adventures. Both have highly predictable storylines, Up even more so than Avatar. You have no doubt that both will have happy endings with some bittersweet elements thrown in. Both use computer graphics extensively, though Avatar is far more advanced and has 3D.
So what makes Up so much better? The answer is simple: it has a much better story, writing, and characters with depth. It does not hurt for a dog-person like me that it also has lots of dogs. Even though the main characters are a grizzled old man and a rotund little boy, you soon find yourself really caring about them in a way that you did not about the much better-looking lead couple in Avatar. There was one short and silent sequence early on, showing the life of Carl and Ellie from childhood to old age, that was extraordinarily beautifully done. I am not usually emotional while watching films but this sequence was so exquisite and poignant that it brought tears to my eyes.
It seems to me that it is the creators of animations that are making some of the better films these days. I recently saw another excellent animation Ratatouille and that managed to make a rat (a rat!) a highly engaging character. And going back to 1967, Walt Disney’s Jungle Book has remained one of my favorite films of all time, combining great songs with humor and suspense. Perhaps the reason that animations tend to be among the better films is that the creators of animations know that they cannot depend on film-star power and sex and violence to overcome a weak plot or clunky dialogue. The story, writing, and direction are always the keys to good films, and for animations they are even more important.
A good guide to how good a film is is the extent to which I pay attention to implausibilities, incongruities, and inconsistencies. In the case of Avatar, several such elements struck me even while watching the film, as I noted in my review. But while watching Up I simply did not care if there were any. Looking back, Up had a lot more plot holes than Avatar but I still don’t care. Maybe the reason is because it was an obvious animation while Avatar looked more realistic, and one gives animations more slack. But I think another important reason is that when you get absorbed in a film and its characters, one does not want to let small things destroy one’s enjoyment.
I have never quite seen the appeal of awards and so am baffled that there is so much anticipation about the Oscars and that people actually watch over three hours of the awards show. Having said that, I am glad that Up won for best animated feature film and was also nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. If that gets more people to see it, that is a good thing.
POST SCRIPT: On being an art critic
“People have pointed out evidence of personal feeling in my notices as if they were accusing me of a misdemeanour, not knowing that a criticism written without personal feeling is not worth reading. It is the capacity for making good or bad art a personal matter that makes a man a critic. The artist who accounts for my disparagement by alleging personal animosity on my part is quite right: when people do less than their best, and do that less at once badly and self-complacently, I hate them, loathe them, detest them, long to tear them limb from limb and strew them in gobbets about the stage or platform…. In the same way, really fine artists inspire me with the warmest personal regard, which I gratify in writing my notices without the smallest reference to such monstrous conceits as justice, impartiality, and the rest of the ideals. When my critical mood is at its height, personal feeling is not the word: it is passion: the passion for artistic perfection – for the noblest beauty of sound, sight and action – that rages in me. Let all young artists look to it, and pay no heed to the idiots who declare that criticism should be free from personal feeling. The true critic, I repeat, is the man who becomes your personal enemy on the sole provocation of a bad performance, and will only be appeased by good performances. Now this, though well for art and for the people, means that the critics are, from the social or clubbable point of view, veritable fiends. They can only fit themselves for other people’s clubs by allowing themselves to be corrupted by kindly feelings foreign to the purpose of art.”
– George Bernard Shaw, quoted in Bernard Shaw: His Life and Personality by Hesketh Pearson (1961), p. 126