Monday, June 01, 2009


As a society, we are often prone to discount full strata of experience. This is particularly the case when it comes to our popular culture. For whatever reason, ordinarily sane people feel perfectly comfortable and justified trashing media or genres of culture for no logical reason, based only on their (often wrong) presumptions.

Of course, as someone who teaches, studies, and writes about popular culture, I admit that I am firmly prickly about such matters. However, I notice it a lot. Even people who know what I do feel insistent on telling me such lovelies as "No, I would never play video games," or "that's just a kids program"...and I have heard more than one academic (who should otherwise be a smart person) brag about either never watching or not even owning a television. Being the smartass that I am, I'm always forced to wonder how they would respond if I came back with "Oh, I don't read...I'm proud not to read."

Unfortunately, this is something that is not confined to the freaks who will actually associate with me. I think it is widespread. Rather than take chances on new media experiences, many people are all too ready to just follow their blind prejudices or simply do what they've always done. This leads to narrow mindsets. Moreover, it leads to people thinking of entire realms of experience as being "no thought zones." And is there really any good that can come of us just deciding not to think of something?

Even worse is when this happens within the culture industry itself. I've always said that there can be, for instance, magnificent children's entertainment. Roald Dahl works (James and the Giant Peach and the Willie Wonka stories are great examples of kids stories which are smart, witty, and never talk down to their audience. Harry Potter is the same way. As a result, these are magnificent experiences for kids and adults alike.

Unfortunately, most of the children's entertainment out there does not have respect for their audience, and this is a prime reason many disdain children's culture. As a man with two nephews and a niece, I've seem my share of awful bilge pumped out in the name of Children's Entertainment. Parents have undoubtedly seen more examples of this than they would care to recall. All I have to do is even think of the trailer for Hotel for Dogs or see an ad for some Hannah Montana crap, and I'm ready to discount anything written for anyone under 18.

This would be a real shame, though, because I would lose Pixar films.

I liked Toy Story a lot, but I never really thought too much about the studio behind it. Then the spousal unit and I saw Wall-E and were blown away...I still think it should've not only received a nomination but should've won last year's Best Picture Oscar. Then we saw Ratatouille and The Incredibles. These brilliant movies all convinced me to give Pixar a free pass. If they make it, I will see it.

This faith was rewarded this weekend when the spousal unit and I saw Up.

Up, plot-wise, follows an elderly balloon salesman named Carl Fredricksen on his quest to finally escape his life and enter into a world of adventure. He does this by tying a gaggle of helium balloons to his house and flying to South America.

However, this (or any other plot description) does not really do justice to the movie. Rather than being plot-centric, Up is a character piece about loss, closure, and life. While there is a definite action theme central to the movie--after all, it focuses on a man who's dreamed of adventure his whole life--this movie is about emotion.

The first scenes show Carl as a little kid, watching a movie theater newsreel about a daring adventurer named Charles F. Muntz, who Carl idolizes. The next day, he meets a young girl named Ellie who's similarly obsessed with Muntz, and the two become friends.

However, the next sequence is utterly devastating. In a montage spanning 70 years of Carl's life, we see Carl and Ellie growing close, falling in love, marrying, building a house together (while still wearing their wedding clothes), working together, promising to each other to go on a grand South America adventure some day, planning for children, being told by doctor they will never have kids, having life (in the form of car repairs, house repairs, and such) get in the way of their planned adventure, growing old, and Carl finally being able to buy plane tickets for the two of the to finally visit Paradise Falls in South America...just as Ellie gets sick and dies.

It's a haunting sequence, slamming the viewer from highs to lows, making you first get interested in these two characters, then start liking them, then become intimately involved in their life together which never quite reaches their dreams. If I were not so strong of a man, my emotions would've gotten the better of me.

(okay, damnit, I choked up and cried)

From then on, the "adventure" phase of the movie starts. However, even in the most adventure-ridden scenes, there's such a strong current of emotion that underlies the plot. There are big events. There are funny jokes. The talking dogs (constantly obsessed with and distracted by squirrels) are amazing. But while every other element of the movie is great--the visuals alone are stunning--the movie makes sure you never forget that it is a ride of emotions, first off.

While flying to South America in his balloon-lifted house, Carl discovers Russell (a Wilderness Explorer--basically, a Cub Scout) has accidentally stowed away. This of course leads to some good "old guy versus young kid" humor, but the relationship between the two gets much deeper, and the movie never lets the viewer forget it. While resting for the night, Carl asks Russell about the kid's father, and Russell tells him his parents are divorced. While Russell doesn't see his dad that much, he does enjoy sitting with him and eating ice cream while counting cars. Speaking about his dad, Russell tells Carl "It's's the little things about being with him I miss most."

That is the joy of Up. While there are big visuals, big action, big jokes, the movie really excels when it drives home the point that the little things are, in the end, more important, more noteworthy.

And it would be a shame if anyone missed this message simply because it came in a "kid's movie."


Nathan Crook said...

Having learned long ago that there can be simple pleasures and great lessons in culture produced for children, I too have a golden ticket for EVERY Pixar film that has come out. However, I remain vigilant for films such as the human-centric Over The Hedge that works long and hard to convey notions that animals are fine with whatever junk humans leave them to eat and that the natural environment is not necessary. While films such as Up, which I am taking my family to see tomorrow, do have both entertainment and socially redeeming values, there sure is a lot of detritus a parent has to sift through to find the gems. I think this is why I give Pixar a pass. I have been convinced that they produce a product that transcends age and experience.

dr alex said...

I cried much of the way through this film. But I'm very emotional and, as you said, it's an emotion-laden film.

But your final point sticks with me. I think of my time in BG with so much love and affection. And while I did, in fact, earn a degree, the things that I remember are things like tv night, howard's, house parties, etc. It's "hey, remember that night when...."

The little things are so much bigger than the big things.