Why is “Up” getting such good reviews?

I like Pixar movies as much as anyone else, but Up simply isn’t that good. It’s not that witty, the storyline is pretty basic, and the characters are fairly simple. Much of the interaction between characters—especially in the middle of the movie—is dull. Up is a decent adventure movie with very good animation and cute-looking characters. I could see how this is appealing for children, but I don’t understand the logic behind the reviews praising this movie as excellent for people of all ages: It has a 98 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is currently number 16 (of all time!) on IMDB.  (Admittedly, new movies tend to get a boost, but this movie shouldn’t even be in the top 200.)

After the movie, I was a bit confused about what elicited the rave reviews. Stephanie Zacharek of Salon (one of the very few critics who wrote a negative review) helped me understand what sparked them in her claim:

Up has the quality of a vacation package masquerading as a journey. Everything in it seems meticulously calibrated to get an effect out of us, to return us to a supposedly desirable childlike state of innocence: Carl is cantankerous, not too cuddly–at least until the very end, when we get the payoff of seeing him transformed into a caring human being…. In the world of Up, being too grown-up is never a good thing: The vision of Carl and Ellie’s marriage, which consists largely of their beaming at one another, holding hands and having picnics, even well into old age, looks more like a denture adhesive commercial than a real romantic partnership.”

This rings true. Up tries very hard to bring you into the mindset of a child, living by your emotions. Adults love the opening scene because it graphically shows failures and lost love in a way that children can understand. Peter Travers claims the opening scene is “touched by genius”, but look at his explanation for this claim:

“The opening sequence is touched by genius. A young Depression-era boy named Carl goes to the movies and watches a newsreel about Charles Muntz (a complex portrait in voice by the great Christopher Plummer), an explorer who takes off for South America in a dirigible to track a giant bird at Paradise Falls. Quiet Carl wants to explore as well. He meets an exciting, motor-mouthed girl, Ellie, who shares his feelings. They grow up, marry and grow old without fulfilling their dreams of children or adventure. This near-silent prelude is Pixar perfection.”

Since when does offering a plot summary justify the claim that a scene is “touched by genius”? Travers provides absolutely no justification for his praise. This is the point that Zacharek’s review supports: The movie is tugging at your emotions, trying to prompt reactions like that of Travers that can’t have any explanation because they simply aren’t justified. The essence of why critics like Up is that it makes them feel good. I don’t have a problem with people attending movies because they make them feel good; I do have a problem with movies breaking the top 20 on IMDB or being deemed genius because they make you feel good.

To emphasize this point, let’s take a look at Wall-E, Pixar’s last summer hit that garnered similar praise to Up. The difference? Much of the praise of Wall-E was justified. Wall-E was a good science-fiction story with hardly any dialogue, a feat in itself. Sure, there were some intonations and hints of words, but for the most part communication in Wall-E was all about body language and emotional cues. As Roger Ebert put it, the lack of dialogue allowed the movie to “cross language barriers”.  However, more than being an impressive technical marvel, Wall-E affects our emotions through ideas rather than ploys. It makes us think about the relationship between humans and technology, romance, and consciousness. Even if you disagree with the message, it makes you think about consumerism. Moreover, Wall-E and Eve’s interaction is fascinating psychologically. And, it is very humorous about it too.

The point is truly great movies don’t just make us feel good. Truly great movies affect our emotions through the ideas they are utilizing. Sure, there may still be cute scenes in great movies, but these cute scenes contribute to a broader story that consists of meaningful themes that spark thought.  It is easy to forget this when watching animated films, which remind us of childhood and tempt us to apply child-like standards. But, Wall-E and Up deserve more nuanced treatment from critics. Up is simply not on the same playing field as Wall-E.

6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by John S on June 9, 2009 at 7:16 PM

    I’m talking a little out of turn here, having not seen either of these movies, but I think Pixar has always been in the business of making “kids movies.” They are really good at it and sometimes these kids movies resonate with adults (Wall-E is only the most obvious example), but they are still basically kids movies. Tugging at heartstrings and emphasizing childhood are what they are supposed to do, so I think anything that goes above and beyond that is just icing on the cake. Hence all the positive reviews.

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  2. Posted by Matt on June 9, 2009 at 8:29 PM

    Up was pretty great, but it did fall into “jokey” territory too much. I agree that WALL-E better by a mile, but all this “boohoo a Pixar movie I didn’t happen to like is getting positive reviews” ranting bullsh*t is just crap. Put a pipe in it and let the movie have its 15 minutes.

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  3. Posted by Alex Bellis on June 10, 2009 at 12:24 AM

    I agree with you Josh. I thought the movie was good, fun, cute and funny at various points. But it didn’t have that adult humor and wit in there that the other big hits do (Finding Nemo, Toy Story). Although I have talked to a bunch of people who loved it, thought it was amazing and teared up throughout. ::shrugs::

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  4. […] complaint that Up merely made him feel good instead of forever altering his weltanschauung prompted me to consider a deeper question: What is […]

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  5. […] titles of this decade, with The Dark Knight in the top spot—granted the list is severely flawed (Up is No. 2 and Gran Torino is actually on the list), but it is a clear indication that these films […]

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  6. […] I started writing for NPI, I knew I was going to take some unpopular positions. But, never did I anticipate taking a position as unpopular as this one is […]

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