Yesterday saw perhaps the most perfect weather so far in this awful summer, but my five-year-old son Ben and I were holed up in a movie theater watching Up. The latest Pixar film has garnered almost universally positive reviews and plenty of weepy testimonials. I was so engrossed in the film that I neglected to notice that my son drank enough Sprite to replace all of his bodily fluids. Up, I can report, deserves its high praise, but it’s not quite at the level of Brad Bird’s brilliant Pixar features, The Incredibles and Rataouille.
Up is the most melodramatic Pixar film to date, and I mean melodramatic in the positive sense. Thomas Elsaesser defines melodrama as a “rhythm of experience” consisting of brisk cycles alternating between happy/sad, triumph/defeat. Even the title of the film is melodramatic: there’s a lot of down to counterbalance the up. The movie’s maudlin backstory and fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants adventurousness is juxtaposed against nonsensical humor, leaving you to constantly resort your feelings in a manner that’s difficult to define but, to me, didn’t seem entirely emotionally realistic.
If Up has the emotional structure of an old Hollywood melodrama, it has the referential quality of a postmodern film. All of the Pixar films quote other films and visual texts, and Up is no exception. The snarling Doberman with the squeaky voice is right out of Guy Ritchie’s Snatch. Carl Frederickson, the square-jawed widower who is the hero of the film, is supposedly based on a George Booth figure, the kind who looks like he has a mouth full of splinters. The story premise was drawn from the same ur-story as the Indiana Jones series. The only element drawn from real life is Dug, who represents every well-fed, slack-minded family dog.
The Pixar movies, Up included, are all le mode retro films. The historical details are meticulously rendered, but it’s not always easy to define which decade they come from or when the present action of the film takes place. Of all the Pixar films Up has the earliest reference point: the 1930s, the dawn of the modern mass media. The Pixar films are historical dramas for people who have yet to develop a cultural history of their own. The present is always bad, full of unhappy homes and technologies that dull our senses. Early in Up a GPS device, one of the few contemporary references in the film, gets tossed out a window before it can be used in order for the real adventure to begin.
The adventure itself takes place in a mythical land called Paradise Falls. What’s surprising about the landscape and the figures is how stylized they are. Animators have dropped their attempt to reproduce the real world just as the technology was making the quest attainable. Major studio animated films are becoming increasingly abstract, turning into a series of exquisite surfaces. The bird in Up is a prime example. In fact, the plot turns on the point that it’s too implausibly beautiful to exist. The explorer Muntz pursues it with almost erotic obsessiveness.
Muntz’s airship, not Carl’s floating house, is the most intriguing symbol in Up. The blimp is an anachronism that points not to newsreel days, but to the earliest days of Hollywood’s current blockbuster phase. Up and its Pixar stable mates are the only contemporary big-budget films that capture the state of wonder and adventurousness of early blockbusters like The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and Star Wars (1975), before special effects films became uneasily self-conscious (see the latest Star Trek) and/or mere alteration between shock and non-shock—another melodramatic form. Up may be a critical and popular success, but right now it doesn’t appear to have advanced the animated feature film genre very much. Still, Up could one day appear to be the harbinger of a new development in big-budget Hollywood spectacles: increasingly stylized and abstract, floating in their own self-referential worlds, flaunting their exquisite surfaces, revealing their shriveled hearts.