Oscarpalooza: Why is “Up” getting such good reviews?

In honor of Oscar weekend, NPI will be rerunning our reviews of the Best Picture nominees. Here, Josh wonders what all the fuss over Up is about:

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 athis 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.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by doc on March 6, 2010 at 7:18 PM

    Nice analysis Josh of what makes a good movie. I have not seen Up, but you are right on target with Wall-E. I hope Pierre Menard chimes or John Mayer chime in. It would make my day.

    Reply

  2. […] affection for dioramas and cultural allusions. Although, to be fair, we weren’t big fans of the winner’s source material. Speaking of films Josh didn’t like, The Millions considers Up in the Air from a literary […]

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