We were shocked and saddened this week by the sudden loss of WFIU’s movie critic, Peter Noble-Kuchera. Peter had been reviewing films for WFIU since 2003. His love for the craft of filmmaking was evident in his in-depth and insightful reviews; a talent that earned him a second place award for Best Radio Critic at the Los Angeles Press Club’s 1st Annual National Entertainment Journalism Awards in 2008.
Peter completed four years of film study at the University of Minnesota and two years of film production in the Film Cities in St. Paul. Originally from Columbus, Indiana, Peter moved to Bloomington in 1998. He began working with our sister station, WTIU, in January of 2006 as a Producer of On-Air Fundraising. His voice, skill and presence will truly be missed. It is with great sadness that we post his final review of the Disney/Pixar film, Up.
– David Wood, WFIU Music Director and Arts Bureau Chief
When Pixar Studios – creators of computer animated films including Finding Nemo and The Incredibles – made Cars, it was a bad sign. That film was supposedly about the value of old things, especially mourning the death of Route 66. But it was too shiny and false. It was really about the director’s (Pixar CEO John Lasseter) love of toys.
One of the problems with high technology is that it’s so expensive, it often winds up in the hands of money men and geeks (neither term necessarily pejorative). So given American mainstream film’s obsessive quest for “blockbusters,” it’s no surprise that the studios (read: money men) have become addicted to computer graphics. At least the CG folks have work.
But this is deadly. With no artist near the top of the decision tree, the movies have lost flavor steadily, becoming a factory product that cannot sustain us humans.
John Lasseter seems to be about one-third suit and one-third geek. It’s too easy to say that the final third of him is “artist,” but with only Toy Story coming from deep within him, that’s not quite right. The final third is “impresario.” Lasseter’s genius is to nurture and develop a stable of artists who can delight an audience.
And Up is nothing if not a garden of delights. This is the kind of movie that Hollywood used to do so well: an unabashedly broad, story-driven, fantasy-fueled adventure that changes the very connotation of “factory-made.”
The story, as Disney marketing muscle has no doubt already made you aware, involves a crotchety old man, Karl (voiced by Ed Asner) who gets fed up, attaches a billion balloons to his house, and floats away to South America.
Like Cars, that idea implies an interest in old things – but this time, a much deeper one. The film’s first major trick (and within even that, dozens and dozens of lesser tricks) is one I’ve not seen before. Old people are invisible in our death-afraid culture; when they aren’t productive workers any more, they’re tucked away, their wisdom lost to us. To make Karl really VISIBLE, writers show us his whole life. In about 10 minutes.
That’s how Up starts – with a montage of Karl’s life from childhood, meeting, loving and eventually giving up to death his love and bride, Ellie, going into the house to die. This montage could stand alone as a short film. But the movie’s just getting warmed up.
So much is remarkable about Up. Its mastery of a strategy for visual comedy that comes right out of vaudeville and silent cinema, for one. Director Pete Doctor often locks off the camera, using the edges of the frame and distracting you with sleight of hand. A magical bird stands so tall its head can’t be seen above us. A heedlessly-enthusiastic little boy gestures broadly, and we discover that the electronic toy in his hand has flown out the window while we weren’t looking. Abracadabra.
I would not include 3D as one of the film’s highlights. Yes, it’s employed with artistry, by those who have paid attention to what it can and cannot do. That is, current 3D’s most convincing effect is one of diorama (this works well with the locked-off camera). We want to peer through windows – into the house, we’re curious – then out of it, and down, like from the window of a plane, to see the little toy homes below.
But this is mostly a distraction. I’ve seen the film in 2D and in 3D. See it in 2D. You can take in so much more visual information using your eyes the way you use them every day. I get a bit anxious when “Up” pays homage to The Wizard of Oz. Is Pixar thinking that the move to 3D is like Dorothy stepping into Kansas and the world of Technicolor, leaving black & white behind forever? That’s not the movie’s soul – but I feel a competing influence in the creative offices, a voice that, I hope, will be kept in its place.
Because the great joy of Up is all the ways it comes at you. What’s next? You surrender. And most of the supporting values are right. A real animator’s love of the telling detail (the influence of Lasseter’s idol, Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki). A love of living things and a delight in the billion ways they express themselves. And yes, a real love of things old. Hence, a film that uses cutting-edge tools to make something that feels genuine hand-crafted.
At the very end of the closing credits, there is a line of type saying that the film “was made by Pixar.” This includes Pixar’s address, and it’s topped by a child’s drawing of Karl’s house. I used to be worried that little Pixar, when it merged with out-of-control, corporate Disney, would be formatted. I’m not so worried now. In fact, Pixar may very well be the governing core that has returned to the giant at long last. Pixar’s movies are its gift to posterity, but continuing to protect Pixar is Lasseter’s great work. He has his heading; the wind is up.