Oct 09

Five Things Pixar’s UP Has In Common With The Saturday’s UP

FT17 comments • 372 views

1: Pixar’s Up has a multicolour bird in it.
The Saturday’s Up has five multicoloured birds in its video, to use the vernacular.

Actually, that’s the only thing they really have in common, one is a angular if ordinary pop song, the other yet another pretty terrific Pixar animated movie. And one where the critical consensus is spot on, a terrificly powerful first ten minutes followed by a somewhat random but very funny main film. So bearing in mind that yet again this movie will end up in best of the year film lists and so on, its worthwhile reflecting on the trends in Pixar’s movies which often feel without precedent and extremely original. But are they?

Well yes they are. But actually from a narrative point of view Pixar films are not all that bold. Grand jounreys are usually undertaken in which the metaphysical growth of the leads is made physical. Pixar films do not try to flag their morals or meanings, but they are usually there plain for all to see. But they do believe in being as messy as life often is, hence Up’s frankly devestating first ten minutes being a springboard, not a cap, to adventure.

Perhaps where the actual innovation in Pixar lies is their choice of lead characters. They tend not to drwell on the idea that the best viewpoint character for a kid being another kid. Whilst kids rock up in many of their pictures, they are rarely the leads. Nemo exists to be found, Boo is a monster. Up is about an old man, and kids can understand some of the old man mindset because they have grandparents.

Perhaps what is best about many of Pixar’s films is that you can be told the setup, and even watch the first twenty minutes of the films, and not be all that sure where they are going. Up is a particular example of this, which is as chaotic as the best picaresque kids book, throwing in needless talking dogs and Zeppelins because they are cool and funny. Its not the throw the crap at the screen philosophy, but Up is much messier than most Pixar films, which in itself feels rather refreshing.

2: The Saturday’s sing: “I’m ready to be in control and the ground isn’t good enough for me,”
In Pixar’s Up, the only time Carl is truly in control is when his house is lifted by thousands of the balloon and no longer on the ground.


  1. 1
    ledge on 19 Oct 2009 #

    One thing (or five) Up!, and Pixar in general, doesn’t have in common with The Saturdays: strong female presence. Yes Ellie is a strong character, shame she doesn’t make it beyond the first ten minutes.


  2. 2
    Alan on 19 Oct 2009 #

    “Toy Story 2 Jessie scores three points all by herself for being present… But the movie isn’t about her”

    IT SO IS. well, the good bit is.

    otherwise GPsWM

  3. 3
    Pete on 19 Oct 2009 #

    I think I have mentioned this point in every Pixar movie prior to this and even I have got a little jaded by it. But it is remarkable, and there is a really interesting question about the choice of lead for this film. Would UP have worked if Carl had been replaced by Ellie?

    And oddly, I cannot think of a way in which it wouldn’t. You might need to tweak a few of the family issues for Russell, change absent Dad to absent Mum (but that’s easy), and make sure you had an non-sexual adversarial relationship for Muntz, but it really would still work.

    Of course Pixar’s films are great precisely because they tend to avoid this kind of focus grouped demographic munching, but perhaps at the “choice of story to develop” moment they should fast-track the stronger female characters.

    (My view on Jessie is whilst she has a DEVASTATING plot effect in Toy Story 2, she is just a female knock off of Woody).

  4. 4
    swanstep on 19 Oct 2009 #

    @3 Pete (and to some extent #1 Ledge). Do you ask yourself the same question, only sex/gender-reversed about Miyasaki/Ghibli films?

    My own sense is that the overall-girl/female and boy/male orientations of these respective (and, to be clear, equally friggin’ brilliant) studios strongly suggests that, while of course you can remake any particular film with a character flipped, there’s no reason to believe that any stable/repreatable configuration will thereby be reached.

  5. 5
    Pete on 20 Oct 2009 #

    I have not seen as many Ghibli films, though I am sure you are right. The difficulty of course lies with marrying the storytelling desires of the writer/director and the stabs at making them as independent as possible, whilst accepting the cultural impact of the work. Bearing in mind that its quite possible that the first five feature films EVER SEEN by a child will be by Pixar (true of many children I know) the normalising of male leads is interesting.

    I am being glib with my flipping of Carl and Ellie, though the interesting thing is that Ellie is a more adventurous character until she marries Carl. She brings him out, stops him being shy (and monosyllabic). Her reward, a suburban house and subsumed into a marriage )albeit a loving one). She seems to get the bum rap even BEFORE she dies.

    The Ghibli issue does bring up an interesting angle to the gender question, as fantasy heroines do seem more prevalent in Japanese anime culture. I’d be loathe to suggest what this means or what its effect is, but a quick fix to the Pixar problem could well be a well stocked cupboard of Ghibli too.

  6. 6
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 20 Oct 2009 #

    i wonder if you could analyse it a slightly different way: not in terms of national cultures, which seems fraught with slly perils, but in terms of different sub-streams within the genre “kid’s adventure”: where ghibli is largely in the alice/oz stream — small child in mutably topsyturvy world quite unlike our own — and pixar largely in the huck finn picaresque-realist stream? and the boy-ness or girl-ness is half a way of getting the creator firmly in the right stream, and half a way of signalling, on the cover before purchase, which stream the reader/viewer will be getting?

  7. 7
    swanstep on 20 Oct 2009 #

    @5&6. Interesting comments, thanks.
    but a quick fix to the Pixar problem could well be a well stocked cupboard of Ghibli too.
    That’s how it’s working with my nieces I assure you!
    different sub-streams within the genre “kid’s adventure”
    I suspect this is right, and, yes, those different streams of kid’s adventure lit. are pretty heavily gendered. Ghibli films, say, especially, Kiki and Totoro are definitely playing on the same team as Little Women and Mary Poppins as well as Alice/Oz…. In turn, all of that stuff seems strongly continuous with the adult, female-centric lit that has Austen as its brilliant standard-bearer. One upshot for me is that Ghibli films feel, at bottom, much more literary/novel-ish than Pixar films. Not that I mean to criticize Pixar by saying that…. I’m very much looking forward to Up (but I know my nieces will get more out of Ponyo).

  8. 8
    Tom on 20 Oct 2009 #

    A gender-flipped version of Toy Story, with, say, a traditional and modern doll vying for the affections of a “typical” American girl, would be a pretty fascinating opportunity for a very different kind of film (possibly a more “literary” one, probably a sharper one too)

  9. 9
    Tom on 20 Oct 2009 #

    Lytton has so far seen two feature films (not counting “feature-length” straight-to-DVD eps of Thomas etc.)

    1. My Neighbour Totoro, a big favourite because of the CATBUS.
    2. that one about the secret agent guinea pigs which came out a few months ago. He saw this one in the cinema and it made a very big impression on him indeed.

  10. 10
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 20 Oct 2009 #

    i’m a wee bit dubious about “literary” as a term of distinction away from “huckleberry finn”, which (with “moby dick”) is the founding whatever of the “great american novel” (see all of henry james, probably, for the delicately agonised over-examination of this american versus european sensibility, and where “culture” lies)

    alice and austen are REALLY not in the same category — i think we’d also have to distinguish “gang” or “social” fiction (gendered and mixed gender) from solo (unavoidably gendered) fiction

  11. 11
    Pete Baran on 20 Oct 2009 #

    Also I really do not want my films, certainly not my kids films, to be “literary” whatever we are defining that to mean. The female version of “Toy Story” posited above I think is much more likely to play like a version of Mean Girls or Clueless – oh – there’s the Austen again.

    Gang fiction is nearly always gendered male, as often typified by the token female member of the gang (often the most competent member of the group, but that brings in a whole set of other problems of hyper competence in lieu of characterisation). Whilst Monsters vs Aliens flips much of this on its head, it wants Susan to embrace her Monsterliness as a route to empowerment, it makes her a nice sweet, pretty monster along the way.

  12. 12
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 20 Oct 2009 #

    i was being a bit loose with “gang”, as i was includng (in my head): laura ingalls wilder, e.nesbit, swallows and amazons and narnia, and paul berna, which all code “mixed leaning girl” i think — are families gangs? yes in my judgment

    i don’t want to lose what i think swanstep is getting at with “literary”,which seems to me a smart observation, even if i want to lose the actual word!

  13. 13
    Pete on 20 Oct 2009 #

    Families do not equal gangs in my book, they don’t choose to be together (indeed some of the best tension in gang fiction is the “little brother”). But OK, lets not get back to the res of what we are calling “literary”, and why we want it in film. Are we using literary as in the genre “literary fiction”, ie highly introspective, internal crisis as important as external crisis type stuff. Which I think Ghibli does to and extent, but often with gods, moving/flying castles etc.

    I hate the term literary when applied to the actually literary fiction genre, so really don’t want to see it imported here.

  14. 14
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 20 Oct 2009 #

    They do choose to be together though! Think of the kerfuffle when Susan decides she prefers lipstick and nylons to Aslan and priapic goatmen! Obviously we are getting off point though. I need to work this structural theory up elsewhere as it is clearly true and important and proves ther non-existence of influence AND five. But not 5ive.

    Girl (which swanstep was calling literary?): is the elaboration of “internal” via encounter with an extant, complex, subtle social order, whch may or may not be challenged (it is in alice and oz and ghibli; not in little women or little house on the prairie)

    Boy: is the realisation of elaborated self via picaresque flight from dull flat social order into, well, a sequence of adventures, LEVELS if you will

    (i think this codes moby-dick as girl)

  15. 15
    swanstep on 20 Oct 2009 #

    I think this is basically right:
    Girl: is the elaboration of “internal” via encounter with an extant, complex, subtle social order, whch may or may not be challenged (it is in alice and oz and ghibli; not in little women or little house on the prairie)

    Boy: is the realisation of elaborated self via picaresque flight from dull flat social order into, well, a sequence of adventures, LEVELS if you will

    Or put slightly differently, core girl-fiction is ultimately social psychology, whereas core boy-fiction adapts/build on earlier myth-making, non-psychological forms of story-telling.

    There are many many hybrid cases of course: Moby Dick is nifty (at least to an adult) precisely because you go to literally the ends of the earth, but really, much of the time Ishmael’s like a French philosophe (slumming it in a Newport, RI bar!) working though the Encyclopaedia entries on whaling etc. with us. And superhero stories (which have taken over movies to a shocking degree) are also an interesting hybrid

    Anyhow, Pixar and Ghibli do seem to build out from these two different core settings. I’m happy to call both ‘literary’… but ultimately the social-psychology form is where the novel goes, whereas the myth-making lit. goes… to getting on with life and putting away childish things like story-telling (or something). For many boys The Lord of the Rings ends child-hood (getting through that is like completing your own great quest), and is the last novel they ever read.

  16. 16

    pilgrim’s progress as a computer game: it is as the wyrm Ouroboros, which eateth his own tayle

  17. 17
    Alan on 21 Oct 2009 #

    dude, dante’s inferno (male protagonists, the original spiritual journey/road trip) is so the template for levels in video games. each mini level/circle has its own theme (ice world! gluttony!) and then the greatest end-of-level boss evah.

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