Pixar could lay claim to being the most consistently high quality studio currently operating in the American film system. With a few exceptions their output has been a delight for both adults and children for nearly eighteen years now, so much so that actually trying to figure out what is their best film to date feels a little bit like an exercise in futility. However, there’s no denying what are their best five minutes – the opening of Up! was not only the best thing Pixar had done to date, it was also (by a country mile) the best five minutes of film that year, containing far more heart, emotion and old-fashioned story-telling than any other film managed in its entire running time that year. Three years later it still produces a mixture of smiles & tears as it lays the groundwork for what is to come. Wall-E may be more consistent throughout, but this is just sheer perfection, if the rest of the film had managed to match it in quality then this would be an undisputed masterpiece.
Whilst the films are crafted to perfection, this comes about because they’re willing to take risks as a studio to ensure perfection. They’ve been known to junk half a film and completely retool it into something better based on hunches, to ignore the obvious calls of marketing to produce something that features a grumpy sexagenarian, the misery of infertility, repossession and death as a principal feature of their story. Pixar take risks because they have faith that their audience will take the risk and trust them that they’ll be entertained but also treated as thinking individuals. How many films have such wide appeal rather than a targeted audience? Now how many are willing to do that within the confines of a highly commercial studio system?
It’s easy to dismiss it as pure emotional manipulation (and it’s difficult to argue that it isn’t calculated to wring as much emotion as possible from the audience), but in the course of those five minutes Pixar manage to cram in an entire lifetime of joy, heartache and pain with nary a whiff of dialogue. Such is there commitment to the “Show, don’t tell” mantra that you understand perfectly what’s going on. It’s manipulation that doesn’t feel overly manipulative as you’re too busy being swept along with it and gawping at the sheer bravado that they were willing to take as big a risk as this. It’s hardly surprising that the rest of the film has such a tough time maintaining the high quality of this section and feels a little bit of a let-down afterwards.
Visually it’s beautiful, all pastel colours and soft shadows (showing just how far CGI and animation had come in fourteen years), perfectly visualising the nature of the relationship that it at the core of the film (how many films have one of the key characters missing for the rest of the film after the first five minutes – with no supernatural involvement?). It not only establishes the characters – including the fact that the house is as important a character as anyone else – it establishes the tone of the rest of the film perfectly, there’s a sense of sadness to the whole affair (how many films that deal with widowers’ not have a romantic subplot? Not many, but here it would seem a little too convenient). Up! dares the viewer to dream big, but keep your feet firmly on the ground in terms of your expectations. The look of the film hardens as it progresses, the softness is welcoming at first (especially during the romance of the character’s lives) but in the middle of the film is more menacing, objects loom out of the shadows and it’s never quite sure what is real (context withstanding) and what is purely the imagination. The softness returns following the denouncement, but here it’s a warmth between characters rather than a visual shorthand.
For me Up! marks the last truly great film from Pixar, which afterwards moved further under the Disney barrier (and in doing so softened its stance and willingness to experiment) and projects post Disney began to take fruition (as good as Brave was, it felt more like a traditional Disney project, Princess and all). The move towards sequels and more traditionally based stories hasn’t yet damaged the reputation of the studio, but it has diminished it. However, few studios could claim to have hit these heights so often, even if we spend a few years in the wilderness we can hope that Pixar eventually remember to take risks with its storytelling and produce something like this again.