Monday, January 16, 2012

Up: Why Adventure Can Remain Elusive

       Up remains one of Pixar's most unique movies. After demonstrating human depths in The Incredibles and Ratatouille, the company decided to take a break from serious stories and decided to have fun. They took a challenge in using a grumpy old man as their protagonist, but the gamble paid off.

        Unlike the last post, which covered Theme and Concept, we're going to look at Up's main theme: adventure. Pixar keeps the theme as overt as possible, using the word adventure as a recurring motif. Charles Muntz, the mysterious explorer introduced as Carl's inspiration, even names his ship The Spirit of Adventure, and we get to see why when Carl and Wilderness Scout Russel meet him. 

        As mentioned in my previous blog post, Pixar makes sure that their themes have balance. In the case of Up, the movie emphasizes that adventure can be crazy and exciting, but you can't let it get to your head. I will explore the theme's light and dark sides.

Defining Adventure

      Adventure becomes Carl's liberation when the explorer has something to lose. The movie starts with explaining how Carl and Elliot are a determined, happy couple. We see him and Elliot struggle with a smile to make ends meet so they can visit Paradise Falls and sympathize with their constant failure; the tears come when Elliot dies before she can make the trip, and Carl feels guilty for not keeping his promise to her. As a last straw, when Carl is forced to move to a nursing home after Elliot dies, he doesn't take the news lying down.  The audience thus cheers when he opens up the millions of balloons that lift his house off the ground and away from the nursing home doctors. Carl's decision liberates him from a mundane, unfair life and gives him a chance of redeeming his promise to Elliot.

        Carl relearns from Russel, an Asian boy who ends up on the flying house by accident, that you only need people you care about to have an adventure. Pixar wants us to view Russel as an annoying, determined, and naive Wilderness Scout who has never been outdoors; they hint at hidden depths, however, when he steers Carl's house through a storm and mentions that his dad lives with another woman. The real sadness hits when he says he used to eat ice-cream with his dad and count cars: "I know it sounds boring, but I remember the boring parts the most." The viewer flashes back to Elliot and Carl's cozy happiness at their more mundane moments and realizes what Carl has been missing.

       Carl's living contrast and representation of adventure's darker side is Charles Muntz, now aged and obsessed with capturing an exotic bird named Kevin. Guilt motivates Carl; pride motivates the former explorer. Also, instead of attempting to live in normal society, Muntz isolates himself in the jungle until he brings back Kevin; he has lost any semblance of compassion or morality. The film hints at this when Muntz displays helmets from people he has killed, increases the tension when Muntz captures Kevin and leaves her babies to starve, and has him cross the line by attempting to kill Russel. By the time Russel's life is threatened, the viewer feels no sympathy for Muntz and see how his obsession has corrupted him. While the dogs participate in mundane actions like playing fetch and asking for treats, their abilities to communicate, cook, and coordinate as a military group (some even fly planes) undermine any "boring" or memorable moments that Muntz might have had with a person.

      Despite seeing how adventure has corrupted Muntz's sanity and morality, as well as Russel's unintended influence, Carl only realizes that he needs people when he sees Elliot's scrapbook. The movie has Muntz threaten Carl's house to distract him from rescuing a wounded Kevin; Carl shows an understandable lack of compassion about losing Kevin, although we see his similarity to Muntz. He regains his sullen composure, shunting aside his guilt and focusing on getting the house to Paradise Falls. With that in mind, we would have had a very different movie if Carl had opened the scrapbook earlier as well as a very different adventure, because she shows that Carl was her greatest adventure. Her words and pictures remove Carl's guilt and allow him to move forward; he rescues Russel and Kevin from Muntz and befriends Dug, a golden retriever ostracized by Muntz's pack. By building a new family with Russel and Dug, as well as the other dogs once Muntz gets defeated, Carl proves himself as the better of the two men and the more deserving of a second chance.

Visual Motifs

       The movie's light tone supports its positive view of adventure; unlike Wall-E's dark palette, or Ratatouille's alternating layers of moody color, Up uses vibrant colors even during the film's most serious moments. The sad beginning has soft pastels that give way to emotional piano music, while Carl's initial takeoff emerges in a triumph of shiny red and blue balloons. Pixar wants it viewers to go on a crazy trip, but not to lose sight of the people they care about; they emphasize that with South America's gorgeous, dangerous landscape and the clean atmosphere of America's suburbs.

      The Spirit of Adventure airship represents the theme's ambiguity during the film. Much like how Carl's house is just a house, the airship is just an airship; it serves to transport the owner and house him safely. Muntz and Carl make the ship symbolic; Muntz uses the ship for both benevolent and nightmarish purposes. It can feed a crew of dogs or cage an exotic bird. The ship also tosses and turns during Carl's climactic confrontation with Muntz, emphasizing how it could be used for good and evil. We finally see this when Muntz gets tangled with drifting balloons and the house floats down (on Paradise Falls, no less): Carl now uses the airship as his home, and the dogs become his pets. He remembers his lessons learned with Russel and Elliot's scrapbook, however; he uses the ship only to spend time with the dogs and Russel so they remember the good times. Carl can find adventure anywhere, and he does so thoroughly.

Closing Thoughts

     Although the viewer senses that Up is a complex movie, we enjoy its fun and empathetic nature far more. Toy Story 3 dealt with toy "retirement", Wall-E was a depressing look at our future, while Ratatouille asked if genius could flourish from the lowest levels; Up offers a thrilling and exciting adventure and second chances. Beneath the colorful exterior, however, lies the Pixar layers that we have come to love mingled with familiar humor. We get hope for our personal futures, and the promise that we can have adventures of our own with a peaceful conscience. No second of life is wasted, Pixar tells us, as long as we share it with someone.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Cars 2- How Spies and Pixar Go Together

    This morning a friend and I did a Pixar double feature: we watched Up and Cars 2. In another post, I'll go through Up piece by piece and explain what writers can learn from the movie. For now, let us turn to writer John Lasseter's latest creative venture.

   Cars 2 ups the stakes from the first movie by introducing the World Gran Prix, an international race that promotes Allinol, and alternative fuel. Racecar Lightning McQueen joins the race and brings his best friend Tow Mater for the trip; they soon find out that unlikely friendships are more complicated than they appear.

   The movie also introduces a mob of "lemon" cars that sabotage the race and Allinol's reputation. Fighting the mob are British spies Finn McMissile and Holly Shiftwell; they recruit Mater after mistaking him for an American spy. They have to stop the lemon car mob from killing Lightning McQueen before the races' conclusion in Britain.

   I will analyze the movie by talking about the movie's concept and themes, and how they play out. I am going to talk about the plot in detail, so please do not read if you do not appreciate spoilers.


           John Lasseter wants to introduce two key concepts during his newest film: spies investigating an oil conspiracy and the regular Cars cast learning to get along. The two concepts have distance that needs bridging and balance, given how far apart they can be on the genre spectrum. Brad Bird previously tackled superheroes in The Incredibles, but he was careful to mix in plenty of humor with the movie's real dangers; when people died in, they usually died in an explosion or off-screen. Lasseter has to recreate that same distance from reality without retreading on Bird's territory.   

           Balance is the first issue; Pixar needs to reconcile the harsh nature of mob conspiracies with the Cars world that we've become familiar with. The company has learned from Wall-E to present a colorful world with hope of getting better, at least in terms of contemporary problems. Cars 2 in this case attacks the idea of alternative fuels and organized crime and shows both being handled with hope.                             
                 Pixar also can't seriously injure Mater, McQueen, or the British spies; they only kill two minor characters to establish the movie's stakes. The villains even implement a classic death trap when they finally get their hands on Mater, defusing the fear that Mater will die for real. Lasseter then raises the tension by revealing that Mater was allowed to escape the trap and has a bomb strapped to his air filter. Right after that reveal, however, humor is implemented into a serious car chase and Mater's friends successfully take down the lemon mob; the bomb never even gets a chance to explode, and the viewer can breathe easily. The bomb is also not treated the way it would be treated in real life; it's mostly seen as an obstacle, not a life-threatening terrorist situation until Mater talks to the Queen of England.

             One may argue that Pixar fails to temper the scary stuff in Cars 2, given the number of parents and younger kids who did not appreciate car spies being tortured to death or using guns. Critics also did not appreciate Mater being the film's main character, although he goes through more character development than McQueen. On the other hand, older audiences have appreciated the movie and the James Bond twang within the soundtrack; the movie may have fared better with a PG rating and a marketing slant at teenagers and college students, who would appreciate it.              
            Bridging is the second important issue; the viewer needs to believe that the Cars world can have colorful characters like Mater and dangerous ones like the lemon mob. Lasseter manages to introduce exciting spies by first having a short but exciting action sequence in which British Agent Finn McMissile infiltrates a corrupt oil rig and fakes his death. McMissile's explosive gadgets and brutal tactics draw the viewer in; no viewer can resist a movie with gorgeous explosions. Once the tension is set, we switch to Radiator Springs, where Mater plays some pranks on McQueen and learns hilariously to respect his best friend's boundaries. Lasseter wastes no time in connecting McQueen and Mater to McMissile's missions, using the World Grand Prix as a bridge.

            Belief is the final issue; the viewer needs to believe that Mater can appear as an American spy, and that the British agents made an honest mistake. Lasseter finds a creative solution: he has the real American agent attach his information to an oblivious Mater, who then impresses the British agents with his knowledge of old cars. That knowledge helps them find a necessary informant and the lemon mob's connection to the World Grand Prix, and also saves Mater's life when the car bomb is strapped to him. Mater in this case cannot be stupid or arrogant, only tactless; he keeps trying to tell the agents that he's only a tow truck, and that he doesn't want to mess up their mission.        


            The original Cars movie focused on a racecar learning to appreciate people, not metal trophies. He takes that lesson to heart in the sequel with his best friend Mater when trying to work out their unlikely friendship after several months spent in the World Grand Prix. Even if you appreciate people, however, you also have to be patient with their more annoying characteristics. Lightning McQueen has to learn that the hard way with Mater, who has the tact of well . . . an ignorant tow truck. Mater in turn realizes that other cars, including McQueen, think he's an idiot and laugh at him; he tries to change himself; when the change doesn't work out, he leaves so that McQueen has a better chance at winning. Any person in a similar situation would sympathize with Mater, who tries so hard to help.
           Friendship has to go two ways, always, Pixar reminds us; that phrase becomes the movie's main theme and visual motif. We first see it when McQueen doesn't like Mater's idea of a good time in Radiator Springs, has the tact not to say so, and tries to have a quiet dinner with his girlfriend; Mater doesn't get it and poses as McQueen's waiter at the dinner. This gets reinforced later when Mater keeps embarrassing himself in Japan and in from of McQueen's race car friends and when he messes up McQueen's racing in Japan. The final glimpse of the visual motif occurs in London, when McQueen chases a bomb-strapped Mater and refuses to let him disappear into the British traffic. Even when Mater uses rockets to propel himself away, McQueen hangs on; although the action further endangers McQueen, it shows that he won't give up on Mater the way he had previously in the movie.                  
           Contrasting Mater and McQueen's disintegration friendship is McQueen's rivalry with Francesco Bernoulli, an Italian racecar; Francesco constantly insults McQueen but shows respect and even sympathy for the latter. McQueen soon develops a similar banter and respect for Francesco, recognizing the other car's desire for an honest race and that one should hold on to potential friends. At the same time, becoming friendly rivals with Francesco does not interfere with staying Mater's best friend and in fact helps it thrive.

           Becoming part of a spy mission helps Mater break from his borderline obsessive friendship with McQueen because he meets McMissile and Holly Shiftwell, his "girlfriend"; they give him another world to explore and interact with. He gets his self-confidence back when providing information about car parts, only to lose it when McMissile compliments him on appearing like a fool. Mater finally shows confidence when McQueen encourage him to act on his belief that Miles Axelrod, creator of Allinol and the Grand Prix is the head of the lemon mob. Even though they don't believe him, the British agents' obvious questions help Mater solidify his accusation to them and the audience because he can address any lingering doubts. Mater even becomes an honorary British knight and spy, although he turns down the offer to go on another mission (WHY? We need a Cars 3) in favor of staying in Radiator Springs.

           Lessons to be Learned
          1. When you are writing with different concepts, figure out how your characters will bring them together For that, you need to figure out your characters' motivations and roles in the story and how they will change thanks to the plot. Lasseter built the Cars world to inhabit multiple genres and characters; similarly, you should also built your fictional world to inhabit diversity.

          2. Themes often have two sides to them and can be used to establish visual motifs; exploit these motifs in as many ways possible. Use contrasting characters, increasingly intense conflict scenes, and explosions. Everything is better with explosions

         3. Use humor to defuse situations that may become too terrifying, depending on your audience.
          See what you can do with these lessons, if you can implement them into your writing. See if Pixar can be channeled!

               Image cited
     Lasseter, John, and Brad Lewis. Cars 2. Digital image. IMDB. Web. 12 Jan. 2012. .