29 June 2008

Reviews: Presto and Wall-E

Genre: Animation Pixar's offerings from this year in film 2008 are certainly a step up from their offerings from last year, but they are certainly also not the best they are able to offer in general. While both Presto and Wall-E seem to have evolved from incredibly brilliant, ripe ideas and both are exquisitely technically executed in their animation, neither seems to have gone much past its initial conceit in a focused or well-prepared way. Comedy, born of gimmicks and slap-stickery, and a helpless vagabondery, given to bouts of wandering and turning about in circles, instead of clear and clever goals, seem to dominate the films and to break down ultimately what could have easily been the studio's best works to date. To begin with Presto, which is arguably the better of the two films for its brevity (i. e., for its self-contained status as a short film that prevents it from dragging out its supposedly comic escalations), the film relies mainly for its impact on the improv.-class-level, comedy-action dialogue between the two characters, the demanding magician and his bubbly-cute white rabbit. that doesn't really grow significantly each reprisal doesn't work. As the magician consistently denies the hungry rabbit his one desire, his large fresh carrot, the rabbit consistently thwarts the realization of the magician's one desire, the controlled awe-making of the grand theater's spectating audience. The rabbit does this to the magician by employing a series of physically comic gags mainly turning on the magical property of the magician's top hat and sorcerer's cap that as a pair allow for the teleportation of things through one and out the other. Now, I will admit, the gag is clever and, for the first few trials of it, does remain funny for the audience; but, I have to say, after escalating several times to a further level of physical humiliation for the coincidentally increasingly frustrated magician, the audience comes to expect more than just more similar escalatations. IN short, the gag after the first couple of times, like any gag, grows old. The continuous reprisals multiply, but fail to amount to anything, as the persistent multiplication of an argumentatively empty gag still leaves only emptiness (i. e., 0 x 10 still = 0). Of course, the rabbit in the end finally does get his carrot (and the magician, his adoring audience's applause) and, of course, the tormenting rabbit does come to his magician's rescue, to show that his smirking acts of cruelty weren't a manifestation of his true feelings for the magician; but then, without giving a word about why the audience should care about the events it has just witnessed - a word that would be reason for the film to bear weight beyond its status as just a slapstick-lover's dream or an adorable example of a love-hate relationship, the film ends, tyring up with its neat little Pixar bow another of the studio's increasingly less impressive animated shorts with a carefree and frankly vapid final shot. Disclaimer: While this paragraph may have seemed like a scathing negative review of the film, I must insist that it is not: In all truth, I enjoyed Presto about as much as it possibly could be enjoyed; it just chagrins me to my very core to see a studio that has produced such great shorts as Geri's Game, Knick Knack, and For the Birds fall into the creation of films that seem to be aimed at no more than mindless entertainment of the public. Grade (for Presto): B Now, for Wall-E: Wall-E is easily the most ambitious of all the Pixar films to date: Not just a simply story about a main character who dreams of experiencing something greater than himself (as consistently can be the description of each Pixar full-length release [and some of the shorts as well]), the film advances with zeal through tropes political, environmental, metaphysical, technological, and - yes - even romantic(al). While it does an admirable job at integrating all these various ambitions for an underlying message into one largely coherent screenplay, the sheer enormity that even a combination of one with another of these many ambitions into a skillful and significant screenplay would encumber on any screenwriter proves to be far too much for the film, which attempts to combine them all, and, as a result, the film, like its corpulent human characters, can barely stand on its own. The political forays that consist of several thinly veiled criticisms of the Bush administration (e. g., the repeated urgence by the film's live-action(?) President in his televised addresses that the nation should just "stay the course") and the environmental insistences that, despite the screenwriter's on-the-record denials, simply overwhelm the film with their An-Inconvenient-Truth-like messages are hard to miss by any spectator's standards. The technological partisanship for Apple, Inc. over PCs everywhere - a partisanship reinforced by the fact that the designer of the feisty attractress-robot EVE was the designer of many of the current Mac products - is probably harder for the average spectator to see on his own volition, but nonetheless vibrantly apparent to anyone made privy to that designing coincidence. The discussion and criticisms of social conventions regarding technology, the desk potato, corporation-domination, and the near-sighted techno-geek (i. e., the accustomed-to-instant-gratification Gen-Z member), brought to extreme - and frankly irrational - heights by the supposedly submerged societal fear it taps on, are - well - extreme and frankly irrational in today's increasingly health-&-fitness-minded world; they seem less contemporary and edgy than outdated and somehow that special brand of 80s-paranoid. The metaphysical conceit concerning the self and the body, strongly akin to the Cartesian theory of the body as a machine, runs largely ragged, popping up here and there regularly but inconsistently, as perhaps the strongest message of the film, but ultimately is destroyed for cheap theatrics, namely the "happy ending," in which tragedy is vaingloriously eschewed in the name of love; and - speaking of love - the romantic aspect of the film is perhaps the most contrived of all the ambitions the film sets forth, jousting for prominence, validation, and screen time: An obvious mish-mosh of celebrated (and perhaps a few uncelebrated) romantic storylines from the past, such as Titanic, The Taming of the Shrew, Beauty and the Beast, and Bicentennial Man, the romance tries to be the center-stage focus of the storyline and the struggles through which its characters must go but in the end only succeeds in trying to hard to be realized, at the severe detriment of all of the other of the film's ambitions, namely the metaphyiscal (for reasons aforementioned). In fact, considering the screenplay as a whole, the work seems to be nothing but a mash-up of popular and celebrated (and - again - some unpopular and uncelebrated) works of the past; mixing some of the more memorable scenes and suggestions from films such as One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, E.T.: Extra Terrestrial, BladeRunner, and 2001: A Space Odyssey in addition to the already mentioned other films (i. e., the romantic) in a way that far bypasses clever allusions and broaches on near-identical depictions, Wall-E is perhaps the most ambitious but least original piece to be penned by a filmmaker...ever. The reliance on these past films, in probable hopes to recreate their various iconic states of drama, makes the film out to be far less than what it could have been from the very start (i. e., the printed page) and seems to be a woeful handicap on the talents of the writer - sorry, Mr. Stanton - himself, in that he appears by having so written to be too unable or too uncourageous to venture out, as he implores his characters to do, and let his opus stand on its own. As I believe strongly that fatal flaws within the screenplay, the very foundation of any film, cannot ultimately be compensated for, as others may be, by excellent management of the other aspects of the film (e. g., cinematography, acting, art direction), I will not go on to comment any more on the flaws that inhere in Wall-E and demote it from its once-thought-great status to mere cinematic tomfoolery than to mention a few moments within the film that struck me as prominent and therefore worth mentioning. First, I was thrilled at first, when during the introductory scenes of the film, all was bare and sparse (i. e., beautifully constructed) and virtually silent(!) in the animated world in which Wall-E inhabits. The vacant space really began to give me the exact kind of feeling that would support a greater version of the film, one in which the sheer emptiness of Wall-E's life and world is made palpable for the audience by extensive durations of film displaying vast expanses of repetitive and unchanging soundscapes, scenery, and actions. Yet, as the first indication to me that this film lacked the guts to stand out them alone and be bold in its statement-making, this introductory period (in which Thomas Newman's beautiful score shone) was severely abridged from anywhere near the significant or impressive duration that I had hoped for. Things had to move and happen and change and explode apparently way before any sort of true impression had been instilled in the audience, imply the editors and the director, because true loneliness and exquisitely portrayed solitude is too general-audiences-unfriendly to be shown in the film. Boo for your lack of vision and boldness, Pixar. This goes for your inclusion of that forgettable, silent sidekick cockroach as well. Second (and perhaps on the other hand), Pixar, you bowled me over with your quite eery, extremely haunting, and perhaps even downright morbid display of the 'dead' Wall-E robots, scattered alongside the large highway that our main character Wall-E traverses regularly on his routine passes to and fro his home and his work. It bashed me over the head with the incredible tragedy that is that main Wall-E's life there, alone on that abandoned, barren, and aging planet and having to bear witness daily and without respite to the baking and void corpses of his fallen kin as almost manically aggressive reminders of what looks to be his incredibly forlorn and inevitable fate. O, gosh, the image, perhaps on screen for only a few instants, was so powerful, that it in itself is perhaps enough to redeem the film an entire grade point for me, and I must say, it reminded me candidly of the 'Elephant Graveyard' scenes from The Lion King in nature - an effect really neither a plus nor a minus, but more of an interesting tie-in that I was slightly disappointed was never redressed in the course of the film. Third, in any film, especially any animated film, I feel that the lead filmmaker must make, before beginning, a concrete and aboslute decision about whether or not his work will adhere to the basic and common technical, physical, and scientific principles of life in its realization; the decision must be consistent, must not flip-flop based on what seems opportune as he goes along, and must be accurately representative of the overall tenor of the film (e. g., a serious dramatic work should adhere to those principles at all times, whereas a comedy film may not). Wall-E presents itself as, if it must be categorized on such a dichotomy, the former of those two types of film, as its many ambitious messages and conceits seem to override the bouts of physical comedy that break up the film; correlatively, the film wants to adhere to the principles of physics and science etc. However, it does not; instead of consistence, it picks and chooses where and when the true results of sequences of events and of behaviors have real-world effects in its animations: While in space, Wall-E's propulsion by a fire extinguisher accurately represents the Laws of Motion but, while trying to stand up, the humans' extremely debilitated and weakened bodies do not, astoundingly, give out under the strain of their unusual exercises and tremendous weights. Aah: Be consistent, please! Do not ask us to sporadically suspend our disbelief! Finally, as is usual in most of the films I see, I must tell the cinematographer to BACK THE FUCK UP! There was such potential for exquisite wide-screen beauty in the animations in the film, but much of that potential was - again - vaingloriously squandered for maudlin close-up shots of the drama/action. Sigh. All in all, though, Wall-E wasn't the worst it could have been either. There were, like that graveyard scene, some significant redeeming qualities (that weren't special enough for me to enumerate) that brought the work up from complete catastrophe, but the case still stands: Grade: B- - For next time, Pixar and Mr. Stanton, try to accomplish less and maybe you'll succeed more.

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