The movie Up was not at all what I was expecting. I texted CJS Regular Brad two nights ago; it read “The movie Up was not at all what I was I expecting.” He replied, “What were you expecting?” I said, “I have no idea, but it was way more action movie-y than I thought. And way more dogs too.” Brad’s response: “Yeah, same here, didn’t expect that much action… Or to want to cry at the end.”
That pretty much sums up every viewing experience of a Pixar film rather tidily, doesn’t it? Way more action than you expect married with a desire to cry. Why is that? How does Pixar achieve this strange balance? Let’s take a look.
You may be asking yourself why I was watching Up in the middle of the week anyway, and it’s a valid question. The TV nerd in me wants you to know that we sit firmly in the middle of the March doldrums between sweeps periods making this a wasteland of reruns, while the fragile, recovering, exhausted little girl in me resists telling you that I had food poisoning over the weekend. Ever vomited so hard you burst the capillaries around your eye sockets? I have. Woo hoo food poisoning!
So after enacting what was the bathroom equivalent of The Passion of the Christ Saturday night, I spent Sunday wishing I was dead and Monday still wishing I was dead, but with the added joy of answering work emails from a Blackberry. Tuesday was my first day back, and while the worst of the storm had passed, coming back to life and actually interacting and being forced to sit up all day proved grueling after two days of no food and massive dehydration. I left early, came home and collapsed back on my bed while Lady E toiled away working late.
With no new TV to keep my weary ass company (see my TV Nerd note above if you can’t remember two paragraphs ago, you fucking forgetful Freddy), I turned to Encore where I found Up all set to start. I’ve wanted to see this ever since I whiffed so spectacularly on that Confessional where I predicted this movie would suck.
I felt like even more of a horse’s ass after our very own Brad named it as a movie that made him cry and the incomparable Rob Rector named it as one of his 5 Favorite Films 0f the 00s.
What was most amazing about sitting down to watch it was that I arrived armed with the knowledge that the first 10 minutes are like advanced coursework in making people cry. The very subject of Brad’s Confessional response centered on this. Rector mentioned it in his piece. Every fucking critic in their year-end best list mentioned the opening sequence and how poignant it was. With that type of build, there was no way I was succumbing to any tears at this sequence. I steeled myself for the emotional string-pulling and vowed this movie wouldn’t take me down too. No way was I going to bow to any fucking emotional sledgehammer, I thought pompously.
I wept. I wept hard. I wept at two different parts in what was probably a five minute stretch.
This movie is good. I knew it was coming and there was still nothing I could do about it. Damn.
But as I kept watching, I was struck by just how absurd the rest of the movie was. The balloons on the house, the kid whose parents don’t seem to give a shit that he’s gone, the weird explorer trying to track down some exotic bird with his band of talking dogs, the ability of a feeble 70 year-old man to maneuver a several thousand pound house with a garden hose… I mean, this was some serious reality-bending shit here.
I thought a bit about the ludicrousness of the entire thing, but ultimately didn’t care. I liked Carl, I liked Russell, I liked Doug, and in spite of myself, I rooted for them and the movie’s ham-fisted conservationist message. I lost myself in the incredible set pieces, the bright colors, and the relentless action. The dogs chasing Kevin through the canyon is probably one of my favorite chases of all-time on par with that Paris scene and the shitass Yugo from the first Bourne movie and any time they’re in Audis in the movie Ronin.
And yet it doesn’t hold a candle to that amazing sequence with all the doors in Monsters, Inc., which is one of the most inventive and fun parts of any movie anywhere in the world. It was breathtaking, it was insanely creative, it was totally implausible defying the laws of physics several times and it was pure, ebullient fun.
What happened ten minutes before the end of that movie? People cried. And then what happened at the end? People cried again. What the hell is going on with these movies? How are they able to simultaneously exist as wish fulfillment of your action-craving id and as the movies that are most able to make you sob like some overly emotional gay stereotype?
Unmitigated excitement and exquisite sadness, all set in a heightened reality. Who lives in world like that?
Remember when you were a kid? Everything was either was breakneck awesome or punishingly sad. I’d never known sadness like the day rain cancelled my scheduled Water World trip when I was 7. I asked my dad if it was okay to cry when our bird Sunny flew out an accidentally open door, then proceeded to soak an entire throw pillow with my tears. Hell, I once cried (hard) in the dugout during coach pitch baseball when a teammate ignored the base coach and kept running forcing me to get tagged out at the next base. I hated him for that since I paid attention to my coaches and had never been tagged out before.
On the flipside, I remember when I finally got to those waterslides and I was bursting with adrenaline. And it wasn’t just waterslides that did it – sledding in my backyard, getting a new video game, drinking a Caffeine-Free Pepsi (I wasn’t allowed much soda as a kid, and this was the crap my parents drank) – all those things give me a rush even know when I think about them because of the excited jolt I got when I was a kid. If it was good when I was a kid, chances are it was awesome!
That’s what being a kid was: all emotions firing at their highest levels all the time. It’s that lack of constant emotional euphoria that makes being an adult both shitty and functional. In Knocked Up, while watching his kids play with bubbles, Paul Rudd’s character comments “Kids point out my complete inability to enjoy anything.” While that’s a little drastic, the older you get, the more you see, and the more it all starts to look the same. You even out, and when you combine that with typical adult-related day-to-day drudgery (For instance: I found out I’ll likely owe on my taxes this year – whee), emotional peaks and valleys become rarer.
And that’s what makes Pixar so successful. In order to service both innocent, wide-eyed kids and jaded adults, Pixar sets its realities in fantasy worlds where anything is possible (land of monsters, the vast ocean, the massive prairie from the perspective of a tiny insect) making the action all the more exciting and able to modify the laws of physics as needed. The highs are higher.
Where Pixar excels at making the lows lower (and where most kids’ fare fails) is by rooting the stories in the immutable and universal shared pain of human experience. Monsters, Inc. takes place against the backdrop of dwindling energy supplies in a growing society unwilling to pay a higher price for its lifestyle. Mostly it’s a movie about overcoming fear and prejudice, but its milieu is startlingly grown-up. Wall*E is about the crushing weight of loneliness and the desire for companionship. A Bug’s Life is about just how fucking hard it is to believe in yourself when you’re an outcast. Finding Nemo is basically an animated version of Rabbit Hole, a movie whose premise my own mother describes as “her worst nightmare.” The Toy Story trilogy is the longest and most agonizing break-up story ever told.
And yet all of these movies are still an absolute delight to watch. Read the previous paragraph again and ask yourself how this can be.
In watching the first ten minutes of Up, I was struck at how beautifully the movie got all the delightful little details of marriage right. The mundane moments of contentment, sticking your hand out and having the other person grab it, smiling at the other person when they don’t even know it – Up fucking NAILED it. So, when the inevitable happens and Ellie leaves us, the tears simply flow just like they did when we were kids.
And then, just like when we were kids, we’re off on a fantastical journey seeing what we’ve never seen and getting there at a breakneck pace. That’s the amazing thing about both kids and Pixar movies – the sadness is only temporary, and at the drop of a hat, we’re merrily skipping along again high as kites living the glorious life that is all but within reach for us all.
It’s my contention that the reason this emotional hurricane of an experience doesn’t devolve into an epic disaster, which it seems like it should, is that by setting things in environments we’ve never seen and have largely only dared to imagine, we’re immediately transported into that feeling of being a kid again. Everything is new again, which allows the cynical scabs that we are to shed our adult skin and roam free as children for only a brief while. And as naked as that makes us, our nerve endings are that much more sensitive, and all of a sudden we’re peaking between glee and woe, joy and sorrow.
Where this separates us from the wildly emotional people in our day to day lives that drive us crazy is that this is all happening in a controlled environment. We’re safe to experience things at their most primal level. We’re free to just feel. We can stare doe-eyed without fear of mockery. Because in a darkened theater or the privacy of your own home, you are the movie’s audience of one. You’re free to evaluate the experience absent the judging eyes of the rest of the world. Whatever you choose to do with it is yours to keep. And that’s a beautiful thing.
Pixar has managed to distill the emotional experience of being a kid down to two hours of computer animation. For anyone who hasn’t experienced re-seeing the world through the eyes of their own children, this is two more hours than we probably get in a week, a month, and possibly even a year.
As it turns out, the duality of watching a Pixar movie isn’t a duality at all. It’s a transformation, which reveals the duality, kid you vs. adult you, in ourselves.
11 Mar 2011 E Dagger