30 May 2009

Reviews: Pixar's Partly Cloudy and Up

Considering the atmospheric conditions upon which both of this year's offerings by Pixar rely, one may expect me to fill these reviews with meteorological metaphors and quips, designed to bring a thematic cohesion to the works and their reflection here and ultimately to make for more bubbly reading. However, one would be wrong: I was not so carried away by the winds of those features last night, to let my conscious rationality be clouded by a few flights of fancy; everything you will read here will be clear, straightforward, and with absolutely no chance of rain - alright, that last one was a bit of stretch, but at least, let's say, I got them all out of my system. Now, onto the reviews:

Partly Cloudy, Genre: Short Film (Animated) / Fable
This year's short film is a fabular short, constructed to tell the story of a misunderstood artist whose one sustaining relationship, with his carrier, becomes strained due to the elaborate severity of his creations. They, though beautiful, elicit nothing but tangible fear from that carrier, and it is that fear that forms the basis for the conflict: Will the artist need to change who he is and what he creates, in order to fit in and maintain the relationship that keeps him afloat (so to speak)? (O, come on; it slipped out. In any case) This story, I must say is one of the best in Pixar's œuvre of shorts that I have seen to date, it being rivalled only by those of Knick Knack (2000) and For the Birds (2002). Not coincidentally, it seems, "fitting in" is the trope best handled by the animators at Pixar, as even its best long feature (i. e., Finding Nemo) rests on that trope; and, though of course one may wonder whether that fact may or may not be because that trope is something of which the animators themselves have had significant and passionate-making personal experiences, the fact remains that perhaps it should stay the moniker of their future additions to the canon. Such speculations, however, are beside the point. Partly Cloudy, as it is founded in storytelling, is indeed a miraculous achievement for Pixar, but that status does unfortunately not exempt it from the downfall of nearly all Pixar films, long and short: While begun beautifully, with dazzling animative sequences and soaring argumentative ambitions, the story invariably gets hewn down to two or three over-simplified elements (as if the storytellers were deliberately pandering to the patronizing view of children held by the common socioculture, instead of treating them as every bit as capable of understanding the nuances of human expression as anyone else, which of course they are) and then crumbles on such insufficient structuring under the heavy weight of its top portion. The trick, it seems, to making these variably doomed features the best they can be is to balance out the weightiness of the fore part with the relative weightlessness of the aft part and therefore to see how little you can allow room for said crumbling. In this case, the crumbling was little, but not unnoticeable. Primarily, the artist (a stormy grey cloud), it is never made clear to the audience, is that brooding artistic type who makes the creations he does because he alone has the ingenious capacity too; rather, it seems from the visual storytelling (e. g., the relative height of that cloud in the sky to the heights of the other clouds, which were higher; the relative lack of mirth that the cloud experiences relative to that which the other clouds experience) that the cloud is the outcast cloud, either charged by a higher design that he cannot change with making those babies - yes, the clouds' creations are all infants of various species, to be carried by their assigned storks to the hopeful parents on earth - that no other cloud wants to make, which would explain the lack of mirth, or else left to make such out-of-the-mainstream babies, because his attempts at making mainstream ones fail every time, which too the visuals would seem to make the case. (I only hold to the initial argument about the cloud, instead of simply deferring to one of two evidentiarily supported interpretations of the film, because of a statement by the artists at Pixar that divulges the cloud's true nature and storyline. Indeed, it is because of that statement that most of these crumblings in this short film make themselves known.) Then, for all its build-up, the resolution of the conflict is presented far too simplistically. There is definitely not a long enough time spent on tension, clearly defining what exactly the conflict is, how exactly it affects the artist's livelihood, and why exactly it is not his onus to change, if he be the genius-creator whom Pixar attests to his being. Within seconds - and a few scattered showers, bluntly inserted for panderingly comic effects - his beaten-down, yet resilient, yet still perhaps defecting stork returns to him after having procured protective gear (which hardly do anything of the sort) from another, more mainstream cloud; the two then embrace; and finally all is practically put back as it had been at the beginning of the film: a menacingly smirky electric-eel infant is presented to the stork and almost nothing has changed anywhere. The only possible didacticism to be derived therefrom is that one needn't change who one is to maintain the relationships one has to those who are closest to him; those closest will appreciate one and return to him always, regardless of who he is. While such a message is of course a nice sentiment and ostensibly, according the to statement, just the one the folks at Pixar were aiming for, it rapidly and almost entirely undercuts the fact that there are at least two beings in any relationship and that, unless both are willing to arrive at a compromise, the one's wish that the other will change is just selfish masturbation. (It is that bluntly black-and-white.) The story, for all its good intentions, then simply reinforces the negative attitude of an artist - or really any person with a creative bent - to remain stubborn and unyielding to all the entreaties of the world around him - no matter how innocent those entreaties may be - for surely the world will eventually yield to him. That only slightly more complex reading of the tale is definitely not what the Pixar men and women (at least consciously) intended to convey - or, at least, I hope it was not - and therefore casts a serious blow to an otherwise beautifully examined little piece. For this kind of shoddy and inconsistent storytelling, I give Partly Cloudy only a

Grade: B+, technically astounding but literally confusing.

Up, Genre: Animated (Drama / Action-Adventure)

Up fails for exactly the same reasons that Partly Cloudy does: the beauty of its (nearly wordless!) set-up is first undone by the oversimplification and the pandering comedy of its middle and then confused by the insubstance of its end; and for that trajectory these two films from Pixar are a perfect match of imperfections and dashed expectations. Up, like so many other Pixar films (e. g., Wall•E), begins with breathtaking acuity, observation, and artistry - a combination of filmic virtue frequently best expressed by films that rely nearly entirely on their visuals to move their plots and their audiences. Wordlessly spinning the life of its protagonist, Carl Frederickson a man of adventure, with only the smallest embellishments by an enchanting Michael-Giacchino score (that unlike its predecessor is not overused/overblown to cover up the visual flaws in its film), the film, I from then knew, was setting itself up for greatness: great achievements or a great downfall. By setting such a high bar that not only brought out the best in skill from the Pixar team, in crafting images that without help succinctly tell the audience the salient features of a man's entire life, but also captured the attention of all members of the audience by so doing - not a peep was uttered by one of the many many children in my particular screening during these scenes, contrasting deeply with the atmosphere during other scenes - Up literally took itself to precarious heights, from which there would be only either an extremely skillful descent or a quick and chaotic plummet back to the mainstream. Dared I to hope for the former? In deep reminder of last year's skillful La Maison en Petits Cubes, I did and hoped that Pixar had taken a page from their colleagues and not from their marketers, who undoubtedly say that kids are grabbed by the slapstickery, the drawl, and the pointless absurdisms of the next phase into which I saw the film devastatingly move. For indeed, as soon as we reach Carl Frederickson at the age at which he remains for the rest of the film (i. e., a stodgy 78), the film takes a sharp turn in its tenor: Beautiful drama gives way to inconsistently comic action/adventure and the film splits itself into two: For its rest, it either halfheartedly attempts to wrap up several huge loose ends that were begun during its great opening (and fails to do so) or halfheartedly attempts to go on with its new design of goofy action/adventure ruling the day, all else be forgotten, especially sentimentality which had at first proposed itself to be the pivotal point of argument in the film. And, with that point shoddily lain by the wayside, with it not even being clear to the audience that objects of once extreme sentimental value no longer should hold that value for Carl, nor for the audience itself, when Carl discards all (and breaks some) of those treasures that he and his wife had preserved by haphazardly dashing them upon a desolate cliff, the film all but shred itself apart for me. From then on, throughout its extremely muddled and ambiguously pointed end, I resisted the urge to try to critique it any more than it deserved, for so monumental truly was its crumbling. Intertwining new plot points hardly made any sense, things of importance were mysteriously and suddenly devalued to nothing or else had been forgotten, and crude maudlinness supplanted the delicate devotion; I was done and fortunately so was the film, resisting the urge to awkwardly try to repair its severe missteps by revisiting its premises in several drawn-out epilogues/addenda. Saving its face only then were Mr. Giacchino's light score, which just managed to buoy emotion above the drowning point, and the animation's technical feats, which throughout had done texturizing work to the minutiae of surfaces that I have never before seen in animated film of any kind. Why not pay similarly remarkable attention to the details of your plot next time, Pixar? Then I won't have to end another review for you with a

Grade: B-, technically astounding but literally overhewn to a twig (and then broken).

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