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Pixar has consistently been a leading force in the film industry and have proven time and time again that they know how to tell a polished story from beginning to end like almost no one else can. Which is exactly why I think Up is one of the most overrated films in recent years: it’s nowhere near as good as the other Pixar films that many insist it is. After delivering one of the best intros they’ve ever created, we’re presented with a middle and an end that are by no means “Pixar quality” and it bugs me that most people have the wool animated over their eyes.
It’s worth noting that I’m actually okay with Cars, because it was meant to be just an okay children’s film instead of reaching out to all ages, and most agree that it’s not great. Up, however, tries to be great, and only achieves it early on, but people insist it’s all around amazing despite a very weak last half that could have been much better. I don’t like it when people say movies are great just because they tried to be great. I’m not saying overall it’s a bad movie. Just overrated.
I’m not the type to go looking for things to point fingers at, nor the type who abandons something once it becomes incredibly popular just to be a rebel, but if you can fairly look at just the second and last third of this film without being completely hypnotized by the admittedly amazing first third, then I think you’ll agree that it’s not nearly as good as you remember it. Keep reading for many examples of what I don’t think worked well, and also examples of how other Pixar films did certain things far better.
There’s no point spending time on what we probably agree on: Up’s introduction is the epitome of Pixar. It’s astonishing how fast they hit you with so much quality in so few frames. Even after the opening’s tragedy we’re presented with a first third that’s great, but at around the 30 minute mark the house starts falling and so does this film’s success; after act two begins the problems with it never stop.
Suspension of disbelief
Almost every film we watch asks us to stretch the truth at one point to accept something that may be hard to believe. Hell, even movies themselves are almost always fake characters in a fake story that we’re willing to believe. Our suspension of disbelief can be pushed pretty far – such as being okay with the fact that a frail old man gathered, machine-blew, and tied a thousand balloons in one night, and that it’s even possible for them to lift a house out of its foundation – but it’s never a good idea to staple two big leaps of faith back to back, such as the fact that the floating fantasy house just happens to land on the exact mesa they needed to find while the old man – Carl – was sleeping. Precocious or not, having a kid – Russell – use a GPS to get within a mile of the location is not enough to easily explain away the second of many big leaps of faith within such a short time span.
A much better way to utilize the outlandish moments in a film is how The Incredibles did it: after ridiculously punching his boss through four walls without killing him, it’s followed by a scene that’s so believable and relatable that it hurts: deeply disappointing someone we care about. So instead of using ridiculous moments to get away with something, it’s instead used as a contrast that enhances the earlier scene’s craziness, and also enhances the following scene’s touching reality. Up still has me dazzled at this point, and I’m only temporarily disgruntled if we can get back to great characters and great story, but it would have been far more moving if the storm itself started to pop the balloons as they got near, and he watched in agony as it instead lands short of his goal. Then have Russell reveal that he stashed one of the extra air machines from the yard that wasn’t empty, and suddenly the ice is broken between the two, and he can get it floating once again and be determined to walk the rest of the distance, which by the way, using the boy scout badge for was a good idea.
Something that begins at this point and continues until the credits is that the old man is as feeble or athletic as is needed in each scene, and I’m actually surprised that so many are willing to let this fault go unmentioned since I’m usually not the one to say “Riiiight” during a scene, but are annoyed at those who are quick to complain. He can barely walk, but he can certainly jump high. Carrying one object might be difficult, but dragging an entire floating house for days with little food sure is easy. His back can be fragile and finicky, but riding a bird from cliff to cliff and then falling off in mid jump is just a minor setback. What aggravates me the most is that I wish this wasn’t skipped over; imagine if Pixar actually explored the pain which he should have been feeling after that fall. It could have greatly elevated your concern and doubt over whether or not the old man was going to live to actually complete his goal or not. Instead, by progressing him to the point where he’s healthier than a teenager, many of the viewers stop doubting he won’t overcome every obstacle with ease. It completely robs all future conflicts of their suspense and impact.
Aside from making the jungle look absolutely tame, it also makes it look absolutely boring. The Incredibles again provides a much better example on how to do it right: a gorgeous looking island from afar, fauna that’s incredibly detailed and immersive in one scene, but completely different in a later scene elsewhere on the island yet just as gorgeous, a distinct and memorable waterfall with a cool trick to it, a cave that serves an actual plot purpose, a volcano that has a secret to it, and a lair that uses a lava waterfall as a badass wallpaper. And this was all five years before Up, and recent 3D technology advancements. What does Up have? An admittedly memorable house, a bland and vague jungle that never thrives or becomes distinct or immersive, mountainous locations that are all simple shapes and boring stone textures, a canyon chase scene that couldn’t be much more simple than it was, and just an okay villain’s home.
It honestly felt like the design team settled on the very first concept art sketches they made in a few hours, and then never tried to improve any of them or make anything more interesting, save for that one distinct waterfall in the painting that we see a few times but never serves a purpose. What’s so painful is how masterful Pixar is at storyboarding, and that this was a problem that arose in the pre-development stage, but the concept art department never fixed it, so it was destined to be bland. If you’re going to set your movie or game in a jungle or on a mesa, then the environments had better be worth exploring, or at the very least, worth looking at while you do nothing but walk from point A to point B. After years of watching movies and playing games I would be surprised if any reader would say they were great. Even the much forgotten or disliked A Bug’s Life had a few distinct, memorable, and well utilized environments.
Underwhelming side characters: plot
While I think most of the environments are far from good, I think only some of the characters are let downs, which is not something that should at all be synonymous with a “great” movie. When I say The Lion King, you instantly think of many memorable main and side characters from the film. When I say Up, you might recall the grumpy man’s face, a chubby boy scout, and a funny dog that talks, but it’s not so easy to remember the other talking dogs. Some of you might remember the villain’s face, but probably not most of you; more on him later. You might need me to remind you there’s an exotic bird in it. If not, then you’ll probably remember all of its important scenes since there were very few of them. I absolutely loved the one scene when it mimics Carl, Russell, and Dug, and I think it would have been so much more fulfilling if it continued to do that along the way at awkward or inappropriate times like the airhead it seemed to be. If not, then it should have been more developed as a mother figure. It has eggs somewhere, but you never see them, and it never seems to care that it’s not being a dutiful mother. Wasted potential on a side character who could have been great, but ended up being not more than an okay McGuffin.
Not every Pixar film needs to strive to be the best Pixar film, but because many consider Up as one of them then I won’t hesitate to yet again compare it to another animated film that does something better. Out of the dozens of Disney films I could compare it to, the closest example is probably Lion King’s three hyenas, which are better than the three talking dogs in just about every way. Instead of a distinct alpha hyena and two sidekicks who secretly want to be the leader, we see an alpha dog that has dull dialogue and two sidekicks who are mostly nonexistent. In our Hangover 2 review, Matt points a finger at a monkey tagalong and claims that it’s a cheap laugh gimmick, and I would hope that all who agree with him on that would agree with me on this: Dug has quite a few hilarious moments, but the evil henchdogs are as simple as a reversed voice box audio joke and a bulldog that has a slight lisp. They don’t need to be evil but they should at least be well defined. The only point in the entire movie where these dogs ever rises above this amateur simplicity are two “alpha” jokes and two “cone of shame” jokes. The rest is either “Ha! He talks funny! Ha! The other one has a lisp!” Perfectly fine for a children’s movie, but not even remotely as well rounded as most Pixar characters are. The fight for being alpha male should have been explored more as a subplot. Remember how we saw the villain’s side of things in Toy Story 3 by getting a peak at their poker game before it turns into an interrogation? That added flavor. Remember when we see the dogs in Up playing poker with dog bones as chips for only three full seconds? A much needed flavor opportunity missed.
As for the cone of shame, all two of its jokes were funny, but remember how other Pixar movies are filled with elaborate item interaction scenes without the use of a montage? Toy Story has many scenes similar to the complex fake flight Buzz takes around the room, Ratatouille has countless kitchen utensil interaction scenes like that, The Incredibles does it with numerous complex fights, A Bug’s Life is about an inventor with several item tricks that are fun to watch while they’re animated on the screen, and I could go on like this for a long time. We see this in Up in the first third with the clever house modifications, but that’s it. The cone of shame certainly isn’t the only way they could have solved this, but it’s one example of how many scenes could have been more layered. Maybe he can slip his head through two adjacent ropes that are tied to the house to the ship, and he can hang glide with his head clamped between them? Maybe he unsuccessfully pretends to be a lamp during an escape? Maybe Dug falls on a second cone of shame and gets it wrapped around his back side, so he essentially can now roll around like a pair of wheels? Non-animated films about dogs don’t have the opportunity to exploit a cone of shame in advanced ways, which leads to . . .
Underwhelming side characters: design
Another thing that bothered me about all of the bad dogs is that their visual designs are incredibly underwhelming. By anthropomorphizing animals’ eyes we can make them unique, which is something Up tries to prove isn’t a must, but fails. I’m not saying it is a must, but Up didn’t do it well at all. There’s a reason why Dug is easy to remember and the others aren’t, and it’s not just because they lack personality; he has huge eyes and a big grin. In other words, he has the typical Pixar injection, and the others just look like any dogs you’d see on the street. It’s not normal to see 100% of an eye’s iris unless a human is in extreme terror or laughter, which is why Pixar characters are instantly likable, because they look cartoony. The bad dogs just get some overactive eyebrows and no exaggerated figures or animations, which is what the animation is all about. If this was done to contrast the good dog with the bad ones – which I would argue it was – then make the dogs more villainous and far more animated. Sid’s dog in Toy Story was just as fleshed out with half as many scenes and no voice at all. As for the bird, she was just okay. A bird with lots of colors isn’t anything clever, and outside of the mimic scene and the scene where it’s hurt, it never does much to make up for its simple design. In a movie where the team is so attentive to things like having Carl’s beard stubble grow longer each day, I don’t think it’s asking very much for more effort to be put into all the other characters. Also, while I did enjoy Dug a lot, his tendency to be as simple as “Fact. This is a fact.” sometimes fell flat.
The design choice also kicks the film in the ass in another minor way. So, they’re not anthropomorphized, but they can play cards and fly planes? Wait, what? They can fly planes?! Not only can this villain (who should strangely be decades older than the already old main character) live in the jungle isolated from the world for decades without running out of food (easy to forgive), but he can also invent talking dog collars (less easy to forgive), and even teach them to fly planes (this is a lot of forgiving), and despite being Leonardo DaVinci himself, he can’t catch a single bird? At least further explore what about this bird is so dang devious, and a three second flexibility scene doesn’t count. Much like the museum that was mostly unused (when the ship tips on its side, continue the fight in the rotated room, don’t immediately leave), the planes were there and gone in an instant, so why even add them? It’s like the development stage noted that Russell would have to deal with planes shooting darts at him while he climbs a rope. Then someone asks how the fight will go, and someone answers “Well, they’ll shoot at him twice, and then that’s the end of the fight.” “Okay, that works.” Pathetic.
While I don’t doubt you – yes you – disagree with my on at least one of my points so far, I hope you can at least agree that a lot of minor complaints are piling up, and even a few big ones.
Ridiculous amounts of decoy joke recycling:
There is a huge difference between a running gag, and a recycled joke. A running gag is the “jar of dirt” in the Pirates sequel, or the chicken dance in Arrested Development. Every time it happens, it adds something to it so it’s different than the last time. In Pirates 2 it was an extended game of keep away, in Arrested Development it’s a dance that completely changes each time. In Up, it’s downright annoying and offending. It’s below Cars level humor and I’m baffled how anyone but a child would laugh at all the “running gags” in Up. To be clear, I’m not talking about the humor in general, just the fact that a simple decoy joke was reused almost ten damn times in the movie. It was even what solved the majority of the conflicts in acts two and three, and that’s really sad.
The tennis ball. Carl wants to get rid of Dug. Dug loves tennis balls. Carl throws a ball as a decoy so he can ditch Dug. Hah! He also needs to get rid of the bird. The bird loves chocolate. He throws it as a decoy. Okay. A little later the other dogs are distracted by a potential squirrel. Heh, those silly dogs. Man, that’s three decoy jokes already though. A while later, Russell uses a leaf blower to blow a dog’s face in a comical manner. Literally 20 seconds later, the same exact joke is used again, but this time on a human’s face. Really? That was kind of lame. Anyways, back to the action. A little bit after this we see Carl distract the dogs with a tennis ball. Okay, well I guess one of the decoy items being reused was to be expected. Shortly after this, the plane dogs are damn near immediately defeated by a “squirrel!” decoy. Dang. Again? Maybe if we didn’t just see the decoy joke used again with a tennis ball, or if the plane fight lasted for more than a few seconds, then it wouldn’t have been such a let down. Less than two minutes later, and the bird is distracted with chocolate. Again. Wow. But we just did this with the dogs in the ship? And the dogs in the planes? Really? Again? And I’m one of the few people saying this is terrible conflict resolution for any viewer over the age of ten?
Piling on the same decoy trick twice for tennis balls, piling on the same decoy trick twice for chocolate, and piling on the same decoy trick twice for squirrels is lazy and downright bad. If you just subconsciously thought I was lazy for reusing “piling on” so many times, then you just inadvertently agreed that those are some decent sized flaws in Up. What’s a better way to do this? Dug’s “Point!” ability. The first time he does it, he points in the wrong direction and is useless. Later in the movie he figures something out that Carl doesn’t, and points to it. This works because it evolves the dog trick to have a different purpose the second time it’s used. You could argue the reuse of the chocolate works, because it’s to get the bird to come instead of leave, but after so many damn decoy tricks in a row, it really loses its success. Another example is how the bird swallows Carl’s walker early on, and coughs it back up. At the end, we see this again, but this time it coughs it up again without the tennis balls, which you find out its babies swallowed, and cough up shortly after. Not bad. This is really simple Pixar Tricks 101 stuff, and these types of blunders are something you don’t see in other Pixar films much. If you can spot them, you sure as heck don’t spot them six dang times.
It also doesn’t help that more than a small chunk of the humor in the whole film is stereotypical. The young kid whines a lot. Predictable. The old dude is grumpy. Haven’t seen a movie about grumpy old men before. I’m not going to say it was anywhere as bad as sitting through Mencia standup comedy, but it certainly was checklist worthy at times. Will his back go out? Yup. Dentures joke? Yep. The sword fight with his walker was cool because it addressed the extension and bouncy tricks he had at his disposal. Again, whereas some Pixar films are nonstop barrages of great minor jokes interlaced with a few amazing ones, Up was very sporadic.
Name some of your favorite Pixar villains. I doubt “the dude in the ship who wanted to kill a bird” is one of them. He basically gets one dinner scene to sell you on why he’s a bad guy, and then it’s time to go nuts. An important one is the fact that they completely skipped over the chance to draw a parallel between the old man and the villain. They both spent their lives trying to keep a promise and prove something to themselves, and both of them were devoured by their dreams. Instead of a typical eureka moment that changes his entire persona in a few frames, it would have been more fulfilling to have him see the villain as a reflection of himself, and then engage in the geezer fight instead of running away, as if he was fighting his past and proving he hadn’t forgotten who he once was. His smile late in the movie is fantastic, but it came much too quick and easy after being glum for over an hour. Does everything have to be dramatic and filled with metaphors? No, but is looking at a photo album for ten seconds and then doing a complete 180 because he just happened to realize it’s what his wife would have wanted any better? Draw, but the parallel could still have been made all the same.
One of the defining quotes of the movie is “That might sound boring, but I think the boring stuff is the stuff I remember the most.” I’ll refrain from suggesting maybe that’s why so many people remember Up, and instead offer a different topic. A lot of what we do in life isn’t that great. We like to pretend that “OMG! Best. Dinner. Ever!” or that “Yep, out of all 3 billion women on Earth, I found the best one for me in existence.” But we all know that most days are just normal, but that’s okay, because we genuinely enjoy them, and we enjoy remembering other simple times in our lives. Your grandfather isn’t the best man who ever lived, but to you he might be, and that’s okay. And it’s okay to like Up; I’m not here to tell you your opinion is wrong. But I hope that this article has shown that – personal bias aside—all things considered, Up is not as solid from start to finish as other Pixar films are.
To say it all in a single sentence, the first third of Up was amazing, but the rest of the movie failed to do much of anything great, and to call this film overall a great movie, is a slap in the face to a few other Pixar films that truly deserve that acclaim for consistently being amazing scene-for-scene. Up does not deserve that same acclaim.
Feel free to directly disagree with certain things I’ve said, and offer other opinions in the comments below. I’d love to hear what you do and don’t agree with me on. I’ll be offline for most of the day while I drive across the country to begin my family reunion vacation, but I promise I will check back on these comments every night for the next week. Thanks for reading and I hope to hear from you all!
As for a score, I thought the first-third was a 9, second-third was a 6, and last-third was a 5. I’m going to round them all up into the overall score.
6.65 – Okay. (6s are just okay. These movies usually have many flaws, didn’t try to do anything special, or were poorly executed. Some will still love 6s, but most prefer to just rent them. Watch more trailers and read more reviews before you decide.)
For Max’s Counterpoint article, head on over this way, then maybe write us a Cblog and tell us what you think about Up, or maybe tell us what Pixar movie you think is the most overrated.