June 8, 2009

Up: "You Know, That Disney Pixar Movie"

Carl recalls the days when a Disney movie was known as a "Disney movie"...

In the week or so since seeing Up, I've heard about a dozen people refer to it in conversation as "that Pixar movie", which, of course, it is. But it's also a Disney movie, officially, as all Pixar movies have been since Cars. There is a long and tumultuous relationship between Disney and Pixar, and if you don't know about it I'm not going to take the time to fill you in now, but I do urge you to track down and watch the excellent documentary The Pixar Story as soon as possible. The important point here is that "Disney-Pixar" is the agreed upon branding at this time, but "Pixar" is all that seems to matter - and all we should expect to matter from this point on.

Like millions of people, I grew up watching Disney movies. In fact the very first memory I have of seeing a movie in a theater is the rerelease of the classic Pinocchio in 1984, when I must have been three going on four years old. This was followed up over the next 10 years of my childhood by surely hundreds of viewings of Disney movies, culminating with what remains arguably my favorite (musically): Aladdin. Hours upon hours of my young life must have been spent watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia (also in its theatrical rerelease), Bambi, Dumbo, Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, Lady and the Tramp, 101 Dalmatians, Robin Hood, The Fox and the Hound, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under, and The Lion King, to name most of the popular animated ones. Additionally, I have fond memories of these live-action Disney movies: Mary Poppins, The Love Bug, Herbie Rides Again, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, Herbie Goes Bananas, Never Cry Wolf, Return to Oz, Flight of the Navigator, The Mighty Ducks, and Cool Runnings. All of these were produced and/or distributed by Disney, and they were cherished entertainment for the kids of my generation (note that we never saw these propagandic shorts) .

Then two things happened: 1.) I grew older, and 2.) Disney began a slow decline in both the quantity and quality of their original films, to the present state where the brand is almost meaningless. At least it's meaninglesst in the semi-tangible way that I once knew it: imaginative, original, durable, wholesome entertainment for children.

To be honest, these days I have to throw up my hands when thinking about what constitutes a Disney movie. The Princess Diaries? The Rookie? Remakes of both Freaky Friday and The Parent Trap? Pirates of the Caribbean? National Treasure? Howl's Moving Castle? Miracle? Glory Road? High School Musical?
Invincible? The movies in The Chronicles of Narnia series? Hannah Montana? Meet the Robinsons? College Road Trip? Though I'm not making any judgment on the quality of these films (a few of them are even good), I have trouble reconciling them with the Disney movies of my childhood. They are still G- and PG-rated films made for families, but I fear the "Disney"-ness as I knew it is lacking from them, even if I can't exactly describe what that means. Am I alone here, or am I just missing the mark because I'm no longer the target demographic?

Either way, you could be forgiven for not realizing some of those were actually Disney movies. But then, without referencing an official list (from a tremendously helpful website) you might also not realize that Disney went from releasing one movie per year up until the early 1980's, then a few movies per year up until the early 1990's, to more than a dozen a year by the 2000's (exactly 12 last year, eight so far in 2009). Therein lies the rub: Disney grew too large in the last two decades, and in the process it diluted its own unique identity.

I realize I'm not breaking any news here to people who have been paying attention, and especially to those who know about the Pixar situation. But for whatever reason it wasn't until hearing so many people call Up "that Pixar movie" that the decline of Disney really hit home (even though the same phenomenon occurred with Wall-E last year). It's hard to complain when Pixar (excuse me, Disney-Pixar) continues to deliver such dazzlingly impressive films, yet a part of me fears that after this Christmas's The Princess and the Frog, Disney really will fall into a deep sleep, never to be woken again. Pixar is the Princess, and Disney is the Frog, and when lost in the memories of my childhood, well, I find that fact a little saddening.


Incidentally, instead of reviewing the dreamy magnificence of Up (which I would now like to call La maison en petits ballons), I'll simply share my surprise that nobody else was reminded of La maison en petits cubes, the earth-shattering, mind-blowing, Oscar-winning animated short by Kunio Kato, he of "Domi arigato, Mr. Roboto" acceptance speech fame. Now, I realize 99% of people who have seen Up have not seen the short, but even those who have seen La maison apparently haven't noticed its similarity to the simultaneously intoxicating and heartbreaking montage of Carl and Ellie's marriage. Considering the set-up of the main character, the melancholic piano score, and even the use of a tree as a romantic rendezvous point, I'm baffled. (And it should go without saying that I'm not accusing one of copying the other; both obviously took years to develop.)

And so I leave it up to you now. When I reviewed the 2009 Oscar Animated Shorts I embedded this short and I'm not sure who was able to see it before it was taken down. I have once again found it but can not guarantee it will be around for long. I can imagine Kunio Kato is not happy about his film continuing to pop up online, but I consider the man a talented genius and I only hope that he can forgive my enthusiasm in showing his work to as many people as possible. Before or after your next viewing of Up (or, La maison en petits ballons), take twelve minutes in a quiet place and enjoy La maison en petits cubes (may take a moment to load):


  1. Great piece!

    It's a funny thing that while pixar has always been under the Disney umbrella, they're now seen as a much better brand. Is it perhaps due to the fact that they seem to be attracting better writers/directors than their bigger brother?

    I fear that Disney's pictures became watered down as a result of their own success. "People liked Robin Williams as The Genie? Awesome - Make sure to sign lots of celebrities to do voices going forward!" "People dug those Elton John songs? Perfect - Make sure we get some big pop acts to perform all our songs from now on!"

    It might just be a different mentality at Pixar...perhaps some notion that every picture needs to earn its place.

    Of course, right on cue they seem to be poised to unleash a crapload of sequels (TOY STORY, MONSTERS INC, and CARS). One has to wonder if that isn't the mouse house trying to influence Pixar's m-o.

  2. This is one of your greatest pieces ever Dan, and i say that with utter sincerity. Your exhaustive historical lead-in, the decline of Disney, the pre-eminence of Pixar and the general state of affairs with animation are informed by the 'personal experience,' superb links, and the realization that quantity rarely equals quality. Of course I do agree that UP is superlative (it's one of the best films of 2009 so far) and that one can't be anything less than amazed by the company's resounding success with both audiences and critics.

  3. Yes, that was a fine article- and thanks so much for sharing that excellent short film.

  4. Thanks, gents, though I'm honestly surprised that you read it as anything new! I figured Disney's downfall was pretty well documented by now. But as you note, Sam, my personal experience led me to action in this case. And my decision to not really "review" Up is in no way a slight of it. I would award it a solid 92% grade here, my only complaints being the reliance on talking dogs and a feeling that the energy of the plot itself became "lost in the jungle" at one point. But on technical and topical merits it was out of this world, as you note in your great review.

    Hatter, you know I never even thought through it far enough to consider those great points that you bring up. If you see The Pixar Story you'll get a little better sense of how the company was formed (truth is, they really had better writers/directors to begin with and they've all remained with the company) and how each of their films are carefully managed by the project manager. I'm sure a lot has changed in the five or so years since that documentary was made, but it's still required viewing for anyone who's enjoyed a Pixar movie.

    Your last point is a little troubling, though, because it just might be true. If it's not Disney pushing them to make sequel after sequel, it might very well be the market. They've seen that Fast & Furious 4 can set a box office record in the dead zone of April, so why not just churn out some more Toy Stories and save the trouble of creating a new world and new characters? It may not be the Pixar way as I understood it, but it sure makes a lot of business sense considering what the movie-going public is paying to see these days.

    And Tommy, thank you for taking the time to enjoy Kato's short. I will stand up for those 12 minutes of brilliance unconditionally. As I think I mentioned in the brief reviews, when I saw it in February it completely sucked the breath out of the theater audience and moved a number of people (including me) to tears. It was just such a big shock considering the tone of the other nominees. With that beautiful score backing it up (that I continue to listen to over and over), I found it an absolutely unforgettable, haunting, emotionally draining experience in the theater, which as it happens is how I've heard people describe the montage in Up.

  5. It might just be a different mentality at Pixar...perhaps some notion that every picture needs to earn its place.

  6. 1. I think this is part of it: "Am I alone here, or am I just missing the mark because I'm no longer the target demographic?"

    2. "Therein lies the rub: Disney grew too large in the last two decades"

    Why did they grow "too large," and who did they grow too large for? I think those are questions that you need to ask yourself.

    Again, not news, but Disney (and Pixar) is now and has always been a business, and one that's in the business of making a lot of money. Wouldn't the increase in film production over the last 2 or 3 decades have more to do with technology and a shift in focus to film (from theme parks and merchandise) more than anything? Their films of decades past were hand-drawn! And, as Hatter points out, Pixar's (Pixar-Disney) is headed in the same direction - they see an opportunity to milk the cow and are squeezing away. While I, too, could be nostalgic about what's in the past, I also can't blame them for trying to run a successful business. Unless their name was George Lucas. ;)

    It's funny - when I was reading this, I was thinking of MTV. Like many in our age demo, I loved the idea and reality of MTV through the early 90s. Then they "sold out" (moved away from their core) to expand their audience. In the process, they became a gigantic brand that we feel nostalgic for now, all the while griping at them for getting away from what they were (myself included on this one).

    Sound familiar?

  7. For what it's worth, I TOTALLY thought of La maison en petits cubes while watching Up, though the short was so superior to Up (which I liked) that I think I kind of pushed it out of my mind.

  8. Some decent points, Fletch, but I would still argue that even in focusing more on film (and especially if so), the "quality" outside of the Pixar films has been a little questionable. Something like High School Musical, which, sure, could have been a Disney movie in the past, but might not have been the one they were known to hang their hat on. Aside from The Princess and The Frog it's almost as if they've given up on animation (sure, why not hand draw it for old times sake?), and I guess that's maybe where I should have directed my frustration.

    Makes me feel a little more sane, Craig, thanks! Yeah I liked the dramatic first half of Up (which reminded me of La maison) quite a bit more than the silly second half. But I'd be happy to watch both of them again.

  9. I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed your blog, Daniel. :)

    Now that John Lasseter has inserted himself into the Disney machine, I'm optimistic that he can turn the beast around a little. The fact that The Princess and the Frog is hand drawn animation was, I believe, mandated by Lasseter. Additionally, Bolt was likely as good as it was (not amazing, but not bad either) because of Lasseter's late involvement.

    I believe Disney can come back. What I'm scared of is the day when Pixar begins to go downhill.

  10. Thanks, old friend, and really great to have you back for a visit.

    You make an excellent point about Lasseter exercising control over some of the recent Disney films. I actually liked Bolt quite a bit more than I expected to, and was happy it was well received, even if not as much as the Disney's other dog movie - Beverly Hills Chihuahua. Lasseter even accomplished the impossible with Bolt by making me tap my foot along to a Miley Cyrus song.

    Pixar? Downhill? Doesn't seem likely, but then it doesn't seem that far off, in one way. As The Hatter mentioned above, the move toward sequels of their biggest hits is a little disconcerting (nevermind that Toy Story 2 was excellent), and even Up, despite the effusive praise it's received, has also been battered a bit by people who are tiring of Pixar's predictability - or something, I don't know.

    In fact I'm almost beginning to think that there might be a competition for Best Animated Film this year. Call me crazy, but a successful campaign for Coraline, 9, The Princess and the Frog, and others just might make it a closer race, or at least one to watch on Oscar night. But you've have to be crazy to bet against Pixar outright...

  11. i think they secretly bought the rights to this short to adapt it however, so the music n the premise.no wonder UP gets all messy in the second half!

  12. Thanks for visiting, swapnil. The similarities are pretty jaw-dropping, and still I'm surprised at all of the people who continue to talk about that montage in Up without even acknowledging this short film. It's not like it was some obscure little clip, either - I don't even watch short films! But it won an Oscar and the acceptance speech was one of the highlights of the night. You'd think more people would have checked it out.

    But yeah, I think Up mostly goes down after the dog starts talking.

  13. the daily crossword in TOI,28-7-09:
    Across:24 Disney pooch
    Down :42 Pixar fish

    pixar is the new Disney, after all everything changes.Disney will always be remembered for all the classic animations and pixar for redefining and breaking new ground, but i hope they focus on originality now forth!!

    p.s:Disney is already in the dictionary, will be some time before pixar is in it!!

  14. "i hope they focus on originality now forth"

    Yeah, me too. I'm definitely going to see Toy Story 3 next year, but I could do without a Cars 2 or whatever else they have down the line. They've done such a great job creating high-concept stories that I hope they (Pixar) continue to take risks.

  15. I really love "Up"'s opening sequence. Then I found "La maison en petits cubes" today. I'm profoundly moved by this beautiful short. And I feel really cheated by Pixar. "La Maison" has already won several awards in 2008 according to wikipedia before "Up" premier in 2009. The story line are fairly original. The mood are virtually the same. I just won't believe two groups can come up with the same theme independently. I surely see Pixar borrow this without acknowledging the inspiration.

  16. Wai Yip: Thank you for this excellent comment!

    Having seen "La Maison" in the theater in 2008, I had the exact same reaction as you did (just in reverse order) when I saw the beginning of "Up". Seemed veeeeery familiar, and to be honest "La Maison" actually broke me up (emotionally) quite a bit more than "Up" did, but that's a different debate.

    All things considered, however, I believe Pixar projects are in the pipeline for years and that it's highly unlikely "La Maison" was a direct influence on "Up". Maybe not out of the question, at least in that it could have inspired the tone and style of it, but I'm not ready to call the idea of the montage a total rip-off...maybe.

    If the video above doesn't work, just Google "La Maison en Petits Cubes" to find it online.


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