Let’s just get this out of the way before we go any further: yes, I cried. Despite my right-leaning conservative status, I’m secure enough in my manhood to admit I was crying several times in this movie. I wasn’t bawling like a six-month-old baby girl or anything - and if I did, I wouldn’t admit it because I’m not *That* secure in my manhood - but there were definitely some water streaming down my face at several points in the movie. And there were several *other* points that my eyes were definitely stinging and my throat got kinda’ tight. This is an extremely sorrow-filled movie that’s full of heartbreak and poignancy, and the goofball adventure-filled commercials didn’t prepare me for that at all. And you know what? It was kinda’ nice to be completely blindsided by a movie this moving. It doesn’t happen to me nearly enough.
OK, on to the review itself an as R2 is fond of saying, “Caution, here be spoilers!”
First up, the short - “Partly Cloudy” is typically short, beautiful, and brilliant. It involved the relationship between clouds and the storks who bring babies. The moment it started, one of the kids in the audience said “Which stork is the drunk one?“ Obviously referring to the old loonie toons shorts, which made me smile. Would anybody object if Pixar made a movie that was nothing but shorts at this point? I wouldn’t, and they must have reams of ideas for them laying around. Just a thought, guys, if you ever want to pad your studio flexography a bit.
The movie itself starts off in the 1930s when Karl Frederickson is watching a newsreel about his hero, Charles Muntz - explorer and scientist - who’s getting defrocked in the news because everyone thinks he faked the remains of a giant bird he found in South America. It's mentioned that he discovered "Paradise Falls," which is obviously based on Jimmie Angel's discovery of "Angel Falls" in 1933, so I suppose we can tenatively date this to sometime around then. He leaves aboard his beautiful art deco dirigible, vowing not to return until he finds another specimen of the bird.
Karl is a short, fat, shy child. Going home from the theater, he hears a voice in an abandoned house, and meets Ellie, a short, skinny, frenetic, precocious child who’s exactly his opposite, and she’s as obsessed with Charles Muntz as Karl is. She tells him of her plan to move her clubhouse - the old abandoned home - to Paradise Falls in South America. They meet cute, and stay that way, and we’re treated to an extended montage of their life together as kids, boyfriend and girlfriend, husband and wife…they buy the abandoned home and move in, fixing it up, they try to start a family and fail, they start a fund to travel, and fail, they spend their lives together growing old and going through the million little disappointments and heartbreaks that everyone does, and then she dies, and short, fat, shy Karl is alone again. It’s a beautiful, sorrowful, heartbreaking sequence that my wife and I were completely unprepared for, it’s almost overwhelming. It’s like they took the first half of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and compressed flensed it down to ten minutes, but kept the entire emotional impact intact. To be honest, I’m getting a little bit misty thinking about it now.
In the present, Karl is a retired balloon salesman, still living in their old house, and being annoyed by Russell, a short, fat Asian kid who wants to get merit badges for his knockoff version of the boy scouts. The rest of the neighborhood has been torn down to build a highrise, and the developers want Karl’s house. He won’t sell, but the wolves are circling and eventually, realizing he has nowhere else to go, he decided to keep a promise he made to his beloved Ellie sixty years earlier, and move her clubhouse to Paradise falls.
As you know from the commercials, he pulls a James and the Giant Peach to float his house, and Russell ends up going with him. What you don’t know…well, I don’t want to blow everything. Suffice to say that in the process, Karl ends up meeting Muntz - who must be 120 if he’s a day by now - and is forced to make a choice between fulfilling a promise to the dead and keeping an obligation to the living, all the while being forced to re-evaluate the hero worship he inadvertently based his entire life around. It’s moving stuff, done in a non-preachy and beautiful manner, and though it’s amazingly, unexpectedly sorrowful, it never quite descends in to tearjerker territory. It’s never cloying. How can a movie with an army of cybernetic dogs be cloying?
The comparison to “Wonderful Life” is pretty apt. It asks the question ‘what happens if George Bailey actually managed to leave Bedford Falls?” If he’s defined himself by his yearning for such a long time, how does he redefine himself and make sense of his life now that he’s gotten what he always longed for? There’s a very hard-hitting scene when Karl manages to accomplish what has been his de facto life’s goal only to find that, you know, some endings aren’t really an end unto themselves, and he has to find something to do with the rest of his life.
In one particular scene he meets up with the thing he always wanted to be, and quickly realizes there’s a pall of mephitic insanity inherent in him. In another he quite literally unburdens himself of the accumulations of a lifetime, and puts himself in the service of a greater good and interestingly from that point on in the film he becomes simultaneously a completely different character, but also the man he always wanted to be. No, scratch that: he’s become what the man he always wanted to be was pretending to be all along, but wasn’t.
From this point on, the sorrow and regret and loneliness boil away in to nothing, and we’re left with…swashbuckling 1930s air-pirate adventure. It becomes the stuff of great 1930s Saturday matinee serials, which, of course, is undoubtedly what Young Karl went to the theater to see at the start of the movie. There’s a sense of joy and daring do that replaces the morosity, and its amazingly fun to see.
Funny too. I probably haven’t harped enough about that, but it is actually a pretty funny movie, though it’s not quite as slapstick as some earlier Pixar films. There’s a lot of slow burn humor, and an enormous amount of comedy relief from an inordinately articulate band of cybernetic talking dogs. “I like you temporarily.” “I was hiding under your house because I love you.” “It’s a funny story because the squirrel dies,” and so on. Pretty hilarious stuff, and thank God for that because if it weren’t there, I think a lot of this movie would be more than I could bear.
Stylistically, the film is beautiful as always, and Pixar wisely decides to use 3D to show depth rather than paddleballs-in-the-face. Voice work is bang-on-perfect, as always, but there’s effectively less of it. For all intents and purposes, there’s only four real characters in the movie who get most of the dialog, and most of that is eaten up by Ed Asner as Karl and Christopher Plummer as Muntz.
Muntz himself is quite interesting. He’s a dashing hero with feet of clay, of course, but you know that the moment you see him. He sets out to be a more up-with-people version of Captain Nemo, but he ends up with the full on madness of Captain Ahab. Interestingly, his character design looks virtually identical to Kirk Douglas, so you’ve got the interesting aspect of Ned Land basically becoming his arch nemesis. The notion that Muntz metaphorically devours his followers is interesting in two ways, first by setting the bar of adventure and excitement so high that none of his fans could ever hope to measure up, and secondly, as he descends in to madness, by actually killing them. He’s a tragic character in search of a tragedy - he did it to himself for no good reason aside from his own uncompromising, overwhelming ego.
Michael Giacchino’s score is beautiful and effective, and this has been quite the year for him as a composer, hasn’t it? Seriously, between this and Trek and Lost, when does the guy sleep?
Direction is not as full of flourish as some previous Pixar films, it’s not cutting edge or terribly experimental, but it is exactly what the story calls for, and it moves effortlessly from wild eyed and idealistic to sweepingly romantic to achingly sad to giddy adventure-comedy. Frankly, a more showy style of direction would have detracted from the simple, emotional heft of the story It think.
So is it Science Fiction? I mean, why am I even bothering to review this for an SF Blog? Well, it’s got an army of cyborg dogs in it, that’s got to count for something. There are also a lot of deliberate references to a lot of classic SF, most notably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World” (1912) in which adventurers atop a huge South American mesa find extinct and unique animals unknown in the outside world. It also shares a lot of the retro-future SF aspects you find in legitimate 1930s serials, the same kind of vein that “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” were mining, not to mention Raiders of the Lost Arc. So decide for yourself. It’s SF enough for me, but I’ll be the first one to admit all that is rather incidental to the true story of a fat, shy, lonely, pathetic little boy learning how to become friends with another fat, lonely, pathetic little boy, even if it takes him two generations to do it.
But the best thing about the film for me is that it’s reaffirmed my faith in Pixar. I felt they’ve been in a bit of a slump since The Incredibles: Ratatouille was, I felt, a massive disappointment, as was Cars. I began to suspect they were guilty of following where trends led, rather than creating their own trends, which is really where they belong. Granted, last year’s “Wall-E” was unreservedly brilliant and even rather experimental in its first act, but that could have been a fluke, you know? This could easily have been another Bug’s Life. Mercifully, however, this film shows that they are hitting a new stride and once again back on top of their game, and I can’t begin to express how exciting it is to have a massive, major, hugely-big studio taking a chance on a risky movie like this which deviates wildly from the summer family film formula, and makes the audience cry as much as it makes them laugh. This is a great and beautiful film that will stay with you long after you’ve seen it, and it feels strangely more personal than the Pixar flicks up to this time.
Strongly, strongly recommended. Go see it.