During the day of the blizzard, Debbie and I went to the Paris Theatre to see Sylvan Chomet’s “The Illusionist.” At the film’s end we were rendered virtually speechless. All we could do is sit in our seats for a bit and take in the experience. I had a big lump in my throat that had nothing to do with my popcorn consumption. The feeling of melancholy caused by this animated feature cut very deep. Since seeing “The Illusionist” I started to think about what made its sentiments so genuine while Pixar’s “Up,” in particular its famous opening montage, rings so false.
Now I have to admit that when I saw “Up,” it wasn’t too long after my mother died. Seeing Carl lose the love of his life inevitably made me think of my dad who had just become a widower. The freshness of that experience made that sequence very effective for me. But, since then, I’ve rethought my feelings on “Up” as a movie and on just what it really achieved in that opening sequence.
What “Up” deserves credit for, in its opening montage, is the successful gimmick or experiment of drawing out cheap emotion from its audience. It doesn’t earn its tears, but instead manipulates them out theatre patrons. “Up’s” makers assume (and rightly so) that everyone in the audience will be able to relate to Carl’s loss, simply because we’ve all lost someone special in our livesâ€“â€“so all they have to do is supply a CliffsNotes version of a life, with love found, and love lost… To wring emotion this way is akin to telling a joke to someone already laughing.
“Up” had more problems than its opening sequence. There was the “jump-the-shark” moment when the talking dogs got into by-planes and FLEW THEM! Sorry, I can buy hearing dogs thoughts’ aloud because of a gadget device, but what about that process would allow them to pilot a plane? Not to mention the film’s biggest issue that Carl can barely walk in the beginning and becomes a swash buckling “Errol Flynn in his prime” by the end (able to fight atop a flying Zeppelin, etc.). Nor should we forget the age of the film’s villain who would have to be at least 20 years older than Carl, yet is somehow still as limber as Flynn. Or the idea that the villain is motivated by making his reputation, something he could easily do by selling his doggie-talkie device to PetCo, but, instead decides that he can only take his place on the world stage by finding a rare bird.
“Up” is a film of many ideas, few of which stick together.
One of my favorite films has become Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which I only got around to seeing about five years ago. For a film known as a Christmas card, you might expect it to be full of the drivel that passes for holiday movies on the Hallmark channel these days. But to watch it reveals a richly textured film with a solid and well-paced build up. The hero character, George Bailey is not a stereotypical hero. He didn’t want to be the heart of a town or even the patriarch of a family, but as life pushed and pulled on him, he did the right thing time after time. Yet, those sacrifices weighed him down and he became resentful, not appreciating what he had so when a final set back arrived he almost gave up on life. By the end of the film (spoiler alert), he gets another chance at life, and is finally able to let go of his burden and recognize his blessings.
The reason for the effectiveness of Capra’s film is that we truly know this character. We’ve seen his flaws, his strengths, glimpsed his dreams, and were crushed by his disappointments. “Up” is also about unfulfilled dreams, two of them in fact: Carl and Ellie could not have children (why they didn’t adopt a child or get a pet is beyond me), and the fact that circumstances kept getting in the way of them going off on their childhood dream to explore a remote section of South America. Why give your character one clear motivation when you can muddle it up with two?
“The Illusionist” also features a character, an outdated aging magician, pushed around by circumstance. The world is changing around him, making his life and art obsolete. When he becomes he caretaker of a young teenage girl named Alice, who sees in him a father figure, the film becomes a study of her life beginning as his life (or way of life) is ending. The pair’s relationship builds throughout the film and the secret sacrifices the magician makes to care for Alice make it all the more heartbreaking when she grows into a woman and begins to break away. The start of her new romantic adult life should be a happy occasion, but set against the end of her relationship with her father figure, its a heartbreak.
Just after I bought our tickets to “The Illusionist” a family of three was exiting after the previous show. A little boy of five asked his dad, “Why did the movie have to end so sad?” The father answered, “Because it was a grown up movie. Grown up movies sometimes have sad endings.”