12 October 2009

The More Things Change...

The year is 1996, and I'm experiencing the first of many absolute obsessions in my life, and it's with a film I haven't even seen yet. The (almost) six years of my life so far have largely centred around watching Winnie the Pooh, Mr Bean and repeats of the 1960s Batman series on Channel 4. Nothing before or since captivated me like the marketing for Toy Story, the first ever completely computer animated feature film. It was colourful, interesting and quite frankly, it looked like the most amazing thing ever to me. This was the start of mine and everyone else's dalliances with Pixar.

Of course, the year now is 2009, and I've gained about three feet in height, a few GCSEs and A-Levels a cynical outlook on life, the universe and everything. But Toy Story is still brilliant, as are the vast majority of Pixar's other nine films. Even their only misfire thus far, 2006's Cars wasn't awful- the world just probably wasn't ready for a "toyetic" animated remake of Doc Hollywood. Their latest effort, Up, is the story of a retired balloon salesman called Carl Frederickson being evicted from his house by distinctly Agent Smith-like property developers. So because it's a Pixar film, his natural response is to lash up a quarter of a million balloons to his house and fly it to South America. Accidentally picking up a naive boy scout called Russell, Carl discovers a lost world and ends up embroiled in a feud with his childhood hero. It can never be said that Pixar is anything but original in its storytelling, and I toddled along to see Up on Saturday in much the way I go to see any other films they make, and here's what I thought, with the usual considerate lack of spoilers.

That said, I'll try to warn people in advance not only that Up crosses that threshold that few other Disney films cross, but that it does it in the first ten minutes. Yes, you know what I mean. Mufasa, Bambi's mam, and now... well, you'll see. It's utterly galling and more mature in places than anything in any family film I can think of. But nevertheless, those first ten minutes are just absolutely perfect. Literally, probably the best scenes in any film released this year. Beautifully animated and acting as a preface to the lighter antics to come. It's not jarring that the tone shifts back once the film crosses that threshold, because the balancing act that director Pete Docter creates means that the sad bits are absolutely heart-wrenching, but not so much that you can't laugh at the really funny bits that follow once the narrative really gets going.

It's not a mark against the film that it never quite lives up to that perfect opening, because it is still very good and very enjoyable, which goes without saying when it comes to this company. You know you're in safe hands, but ten films in, it takes something really exceptional for people to sit up and take notice. Up is being critically acclaimed by all and sundry, but I'm wondering if a day will come when Pixar is constantly expected to up the ante and make films better and better than what has gone before, purely because they're so good at this. This is an outstanding film, but it's not their best. The trouble is that besides the physics-related implications of the central premise, the film is more rooted in the real world than Docter's directorial debut, Monsters Inc. And now his sophomore effort loses steam a little once the house arrives in South America, giving way to a slight mish-mash of ideas. I had similar issues with WALL·E last year, but I loved that too. And the last paragraph comprises everything that detracted from Up as far as I'm concerned- the rest of the film is marvellous.

More than anything else, you have to applaud any film where the protagonist is a good 70 years older than the target audience, especially when that film makes the audience care about the character so quickly. But on top of that, the supporting characters are rather terrific- Jordan Nagai is funny and charming in his film debut, voicing Carl's de facto sidekick Russell, and Pixar voice-regular Bob Peterson as a talking dog called Dug is arguably one of the best part of a film where there are lots of things to praise. Up is one of those films that's just delightful. It's certainly not lacking in substance, by any stretch of the imagination, but all the same you're going to leave the cinema with a great big smile on your face. I saw the film in 2D by the way, and it's just as good, so it's safe to avoid shelling out extra to see it in 3D. It's pointless to go on any further when most people are already persuaded of Pixar's general genius, not to mention the fact that I've already given my epitaph for this review- just delightful.

Apologies for going all over the place again, but let's take another look at 1996. You've probably all seen Toy Story by now, but for the uninitiated, it's the story of a group of toys who come to life when their owner leaves them unwatched in his bedroom. The first film begins with hand-me-down cowboy doll Woody ruling the roost, a role which is usurped in the wake of their owner's birthday. His favourite gift is a brand-new spaceman action figure, Buzz Lightyear, who quickly becomes more popular than Woody. The pair's bickering sends them hurtling into the big bad world outside the bedroom, as Woody struggles to get home and Buzz, who believes he really is a spaceman rather than a child's action figure, trying to launch into outer space to fight for Star Command.

Similarly to Up, it's a buddy movie. You might say not much has changed, and in some respects you'd be right, because Toy Story was recently released again on the big screen, with the sequel to follow in January, and I absolutely adored it. Just as I was 13 years ago, I was absolutely transfixed. The jokes are still funny, the story is still brilliant and literally every time I see it, I notice something new- who noticed that the fireworks company supplying young boys with massive explosives was called Ill Eagle (illegal), with a sniffy bald eagle as its logo? And it's in things like this that the film's enduring appeal is guaranteed- the friends I saw it with all said they noticed more of the adult oriented jokes they didn't pick up on when they were younger. This is a film with cross-generational appeal that goes beyond nostalgia value- it continues to appeal because it is so damn good.

Everything is just pitch perfect. To try and get a bit of coherence to my gushing, I could point out that this is the only Pixar effort where studio interference from Disney could be inferred. It's the only one that fits that Disney musical sort of template, with numbers by Randy "Sings What He Sees" Newman appearing throughout, and maybe it's only me who thinks about these things enough to wonder whether or not it's a matter of Disney values that Woody seems to have lost the gun that should go in his holster. Sorry, this doesn't have any coherence does it? No, it sounds like a film nut rambling about studio politics because he watched the DVD and found out Disney were going to pull the plug on the film at one point. You can always tell I like it when I can't articulate how good it is. What I'm getting at is the fact that this is one of my all-time favourite films for a reason- it never, ever gets old.

At the film's climax, the rocket blasts into the sky and Woody and Buzz are carried what seems like miles into the air, above the moving van. This is the part where they blow up, Woody tells us, but Buzz has other ideas, and suddenly I'm six years old again, getting goosebumps as that music comes on and they fly after the car. I'm now 19, and should really be gushing about more mature fare, but screw that. Toy Story is one of the few completely perfect films ever made, and I defy anyone to say otherwise.

Ahem, after that almost embarrassing gushfest, I still have a few other films to look into. Already seen Zombieland, and I promise a review of that will be coming up, and this week sees the release of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Couples' Retreat and Fantastic Mr. Fox too, so you can expect those to be incoming as and when I see them. In the meantime, if anyone else fancies sharing the Pixar love, feel free to comment. :)

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, watch Toy Story over and over again, on loop, forever. You've got to love it.


Vedang said...

I'm a complete Pixar fanboy too! They've been consistently superb with their work! And though I really love Toy Story (1 & 2), my fav Pixar film would have to be Monsters Inc.!

The Jester said...

Toy Story 2 has been in my TOP 10 favorites of all time for some time now, and I don't see it getting bumped anytime soon. I discovered your blog today, 6/6/2011, and have been reading thoroughly. I must say, I did not guess your age anywhere near close from your writing. You are a very mature, yet sometimes overly cynical 21 year old. I had you pegged more around the 40 year mark. My bad. I've got about 8 years on you (29), and it seems we may be polar opposites. It's very interesting to read your work. www.nobadmovies.net