Let’s just get it out of the way, shall we? I am not a Pixar fan. There are a lot of little reasons, I guess, like the fact that I don’t really care for CGI or computer animation, the standard humor of modern kid’s movies annoys me, stuff like that. In the main, though, I’ve been unable to pinpoint my dislike of Pixar’s films. This is not to say that I hated them all; most of them were mildly entertaining. I enjoyed Monsters, Inc. I really loved The Incredibles. But overall, there’s something lacking for me. Still, I try to keep an open mind, and so we recently watched Up.
Carl (voiced by Ed Asner, but he looks like a cartoon Spencer Tracy) is a crotchety old man, mourning the loss of Ellie, the love of his life. They bonded as children over a love of adventure and exploration, but as adults, they got caught up in the mundane and never chased their dreams. When Carl finds himself in danger of losing his house, he decides to make the grand voyage he and Ellie always planned. Together with an unwitting stowaway, Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai), Carl embarks on a wild adventure to Paradise Falls. Along the way he tangles with his boyhood hero, Charles Muntz (voice: Christopher Plummer, look: Kirk Douglas), whose single-minded obsession with proving the existence of an exotic bird has driven him mad. Ultimately, Carl re-discovers himself through his experiences, and learns to let go of the past and look to the future.
Up has all the usual hallmarks of a Pixar production: excellent voice cast, imaginative story, great visuals, funny little additions here and there. It’s hard to argue with the technical aspects, since they are generally flawless. I will say that the Pixar schtick of giving animals voices without anthropomorph-izing (totally a word) them, per se, is funny at first, but grates a little after a while. I know stuff like that is tossed in to make the kiddies laugh, but it doesn’t amuse me, particularly. I love older children’s movies, so it’s something about the newer stuff that bothers me, but that’s another post for another time.
Partway through Up, I realized what it is that I don’t enjoy about Pixar’s ouvre. In most cases (and like most movies), they have a message. A moral, if you will. And that’s fine, but it’s Pixar’s execution that doesn’t sit well. Their films are too finely calibrated. It’s as though someone wrote a computer program with an algorithm designed to search out each and every concept that tugs at a heartstring, and then put that concept into play within the greater context of the film. Hit this mark, move on to the next mark. Charming montage of childhood sweethearts growing old together, check. Lonely boy with absentee dad, check. Appreciation for unspoiled nature, check. And so on.
I know this is not a widely-held viewpoint, but I didn’t feel like there was any heart or humanity to the movie. It was all too slick, too perfect. That perfection may be, for many, the draw of Pixar’s films, but for me, I think that there is a great deal that gets lost. Had actors been portraying those roles, there would have been a thousand little nuances to their performances that showed us their sadness, their need. In the case of an animated film, we are left to understand those concepts without really seeing evidence of them. An illustration can only go so far; it can only show human emotion on a basic level.
The Pixar films that succeed (for me) are the ones that are not attempting to delve deeper into emotion: The Incredibles is a cartoon action flick. Monsters, Inc. has a sweetness to it, but it’s not trying to go too far. Most of the others don’t reach the emotional depths they’re reaching for. I’m not trying to tell anyone not to watch Up, or any other Pixar film. I’m well aware of their success, and it’s cool that people of all ages can enjoy them. I even look forward to sharing them with my daughter when she’s old enough for them. But I’ll still wish that they were a little less perfect, and had just a little bit more heart.