The Pixar I remember as a 7 year-old going to see Toy Story for the first time is no longer. Their wit, which was once simultaneously clever, universal, and sophisticated, has regressed into heartless snark, bad puns, and toilet humor. While Up is never as smug and contemptuous as the second act of last year's Wall-E, it similarly never reaches the sublime heights Wall-E did in its first half. Rather, Pixar has whored itself out to sugar daddy Disney and Up is the bastard child of clashing sensibilities.
In the world of Pixar, everything--- be it toys, insects, monsters, fish, cars, rats, or robots--- is given abundances of humanity. Everything, that is, with the exception of human beings. When a portrait of human beings is moved to center stage in a Pixar film, they can't contain their contempt for humankind. Be it the portrayal of human beings as fat, lazy, and destructive that shattered the otherwise splendid Wall-E or the bland caricaturizations in Up, Pixar shows that human beings themselves are not their strong suit. Like Up's protagonist, Pixar has become the cranky, disaffected old-man batting passersby with its cane. Up attempts to indict today's children (their core demographic, no less) with an overweight boy-scout who is ignorant of the world outside his insulated corporate landscape; and while this portrait isn't quite as mean-spirited as the citizens of the Axiom in Wall-E, it's still moralistic and snarky. Coming from a studio owned by no less than The Walt Disney Company, this is the equivalent of the pot calling the kettle black.
Which is not to imply that Up doesn't have its moments--- it certainly does. Things start out well enough with the delightful short Partly Cloudy, Pixar's finest short film to date (though they've all been memorable in their own right). If the short that preceded Wall-E--- the magnificent Presto--- was Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes-esque, then this is a perfect 3D re-inhabiting of Walt Disney's own Silly Symphonies. Unlike the feature that follows it, Partly Cloudy's use of 3D is inventive, subtle, and effective--- and proves that Pixar still has chops as visual storytellers.
Unfortunately, things get problematic pretty quickly with Up. Wall-E, at the very least, had sustained brilliance for its first 45 minutes before regressing to formulaic banality and a hateful depiction of humanity in its second half. Up begins with an admittedly touching montage showing the main character, Carl Fredrickson (voiced by Lou Grant himself, Ed Asner) and his wife's life together--- the only thing that separated them was death. This is an extremely simple but eloquent statement on the nature of love and loss, and would rank with Wall-E's first half as flawless visual storytelling. Carl's wife, Ellie, looms over the remainder of the film like a ghost, only the ghosts are those in Carl's soul.
This would rank among Pixar's finest moments, judged apart from the rest of the movie. However, the moment immediately after Pixar has pulled our heart-strings with the death of Carl's loved one it plays Carl's status as a sad, lonely, bitter old man for cheap laughs; the "Habanera" comes in on the soundtrack, as though we're supposed to be amused by the fact that Carl's days are numbered. This tacky juxtaposition makes all the sap that follows (which there is a lot of) ring false. But we wouldn't want to upset the kiddies with tragedy, so instead Pixar tosses some infantile slapstick in with their oppressive schmaltz. This would explain the need for the fat, stupid, annoying child (is there any other kind in the world of Pixar?) as a comic-relief sidekick, and endless lame jokes involving talking dogs (apparently, that's a joke that Disney/Pixar thinks gets funnier each time they tell it).
There is a moment early on in the film that would have made Tati proud. An exterior shot of Carl's wonderfully colorful house cuts to reveal that the house is alone in a sea of apartment and office buildings; a splash of imagination and personality in an increasingly homogenized society, driven by corporate interests. However, coming from Disney, the studio largely responsible for the collective dumbing down of the masses, this notion is dubious; they tried to play the same card in Wall-E, and it was fallacious then as well. This sentiment is made all the more ironic by the endless demographic pandering that follows; it tries to appease the children with lowbrow humor, it tries to appease the adults with bad puns and trite ruminations on life and death. The universal quality that made early Pixar so special has become as mechanical and formulaic as the worst of Disney's modern-day product that they peddle as entertainment.
Pixar is far from talentless, but they are willing to squander their talent to their corporate masters. This makes them something worse than hacks--- it makes them sellouts. The 3D in this film is just a tacked on marketing gimmick; after the inventive use of 3D in Henry Selick's Coraline, this unimaginative and extraneous use of the device is unacceptable. Pixar is so flippant with their gifts and resources that they're willing to exhibit Up and its extraordinary color-palette a shade darker simply for the sake of added revenue. Indeed, through a good chunk of the movie I found myself peeking from behind my 3D-glasses to take in the film's wondrous and imaginative art-direction without the obtrusive and distracting 3D. But Pixar doesn't care about aesthetics anymore; everything about Up reaks of cold, calculated marketing--- it's every bit as manufactured as the Pavlovian reception of these increasingly poorly made films.
Take the central imagery of the flying house in Up. The image of the house taking off is a breathtaking one--- as the balloons burst through the chimney and rip the house out of its foundation, the extraordinary use of color, contrast and tonality in this sequence heightens our senses. This is wild, spectacular imagery that sets the imagination on fire. However, when the main duo reaches South America in its second half, it focuses on banal plot mechanics and the spectacular use of color and image becomes mere window dressing for Disney/Pixar's adherence to trite formula and mechanical plot-beats. Ultimately, the spectacular art-direction is little more than the equivalent of cinematic bubble gum.
Maybe Disney can't do any better than this--- they lost their spark long before they acquired Pixar--- but Pixar Studios certainly can, and we deserve no less. That they think we do is the highest of insults. Ever since Walt Disney's death in 1966, DisneyCo's focus has been solely on increasing GDP and making their stock-holders richer (the company actually never turned a profit during Disney's life-time, as he would continually invest his earnings into bigger and more daring projects), and they have done this through a series of conservative (read: safe) business moves. It's always about the bottom line for DisneyCo. Now Pixar, once defined by unique artistry, is content to be just another asset--- another link in The Walt Disney Company's morally bankrupt chain. This makes them worthy not of our cheers, but our jeers. And they pilfer this infantile crap in the name of children's entertainment, as though they deserve any less than the best we can give them.