The Christopher Plummer Blogathon: Up (2009)

This post is part of the Christopher Plummer Blogathon, hosted by Sean at SeanMunger.com. Read the rest of the posts in this event HERE!

SPOILERS: Be advised I can’t discuss this film (and the character voiced by the topic of this blogathon, Christopher Plummer) without revealing a major spoiler.

Pixar’s 2009 animated feature Up is so unusual in so many ways. A family film that focuses mainly on an elderly character, its themes are sorrowful and even dark. It’s a rare film (live or animated) that contemplates aging and regret. Pixar is celebrated for its imaginative output, and in my opinion Up is its most fanciful and imaginative film to date.

The film begins with a young boy named Carl at the movies (probably during the 1940s) watching newsreels about a famous explorer named Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). Carl is such a fan of Muntz that he wears a helmet and goggles like his. He is stunned to find out his hero has been accused of faking his latest discovery. Muntz disappears, swearing he will one day clear his name.

Carl runs into a feisty little girl named Ellie who is just as much a fan of Muntz as he is. When they grow up they court, marry, and renovate a small house, all the while planning an adventure to Paradise Falls, the last place Muntz was seen. Carl sells balloons to children to make a living. They save their pocket change for their goals, but life intervenes. They are unable to have children, and as the years slide by they end up never leaving for their adventure. Finally, Ellie becomes ill and dies, leaving Carl (voiced as an elderly man by Ed Asner) a bereft and irascible old man.

Urban development leaves the little house surrounded by a construction zone. Carl stubbornly refuses to sell his house, until an incident with the law forces him to move to an old age home. On the day they come to fetch him, he blows up dozens of balloons that lift his house clear off the ground.

Unwittingly, he ends up with a passenger, a boy named Russell (Jordan Nagai) who is a Wilderness Explorer, a sort-of boy scout keen to win a badge for aiding the elderly. They end up near Paradise Falls. On arrival, Carl is determined to drag the still somewhat aloft house to Paradise Falls, as he and Ellie always dreamed. Russell finds a huge and colorful bird he names Kevin. They also run into a pack of dogs that can talk, including one named Dug, who immediately attaches himself to Carl.

Turns out the dogs are owned by none other than Carl’s childhood idol, Charles Muntz, who happens to be looking for the bird Russell has found. At first friendly and welcoming, it quickly turns out Muntz is willing to do anything to capture the bird. Carl must decide between his goal of taking his house to Paradise Falls and saving Kevin from the clutches of the obsessed Muntz.

The character of Muntz is clearly modeled on the movie star adventurers of the 1930s and 1940s, i.e. Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Tyrone Power, etc. He is a “surprise” villain, in the sense that the main characters are initially unaware of his capacity for cruelty and crime.

In fact, I would say that Muntz is the most heinous of the Pixar villains, possibly one of the most heinous of the Disney villains as a whole. Perhaps it seems that way because he’s not a magical figure, but an ordinary man. He’s willing to kill and destroy over an obsession that the rest of the world forgot about long ago.

Who better to voice Muntz than the urbane Christopher Plummer? One could imagine him playing a character just like him in a live action film when he was a young man. Plummer has always been the kind of actor who could easily slip into heroic or villainous roles, and in this film, he voices a character who embodies both.

Up features two men near the end of their lives still trying to fulfill long-cherished dreams. Carl’s character arc is poignant precisely because Muntz is such a perfect foil. He could have been a great man. Instead, he never let go of the past and isolated himself to the point where he could no longer feel empathy. Carl learns to let go of the past and live the rest of his life connected to the world.

Up is a beautiful film enhanced by its rare themes and voice performances by two remarkable veteran actors.

 

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Frozen: 5 Ways Disney Upends Its Own Fairy Tale Tropes

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WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR THE MOVIE FROZEN

Disney’s latest full-length animated feature Frozen is a lovely movie, and in some ways a throwback to its early animated triumphs. Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen, it has many familiar Disney elements: princesses, a prince, adorable sidekicks, a hummable score, heart-thumping action and stunning animation.

But at the same time it’s also an almost radical departure for a Disney princess movie—and that’s probably why it is resonating with so many audience members, particularly girls and women. It does this by undermining some of Disney’s most familiar fairy tale tropes:

Continue reading “Frozen: 5 Ways Disney Upends Its Own Fairy Tale Tropes”

Ray Harryhausen Brought The Creatures Of Our Imaginations To Life

harryhausenHow you react to the news of animator Ray Harryhausen’s death today may depend on your age. If you’re under the age of 40 there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of him. If you’re over the age of 40, especially if you’re a fan of fantasy and sci-fi movies, you probably grew up loving his animation and special effects. You may not know him by name, but if someone said “skeleton sword fight” it’s likely you’d know exactly what they’re talking about.

When it comes to animation and special effects, we’re a spoiled lot these days. What has become possible with computer animation is pretty much . . . everything. Almost anything imaginable can be put on screen and look seamless and organic to a scene. We’ve become so blasé about it, that it’s not unusual for people to rag on special effects on TV looking “cheap” (because, erm, compared to a movie with a $200 million budget, an episode of television IS cheap).

So it’s quite possible to look at Harryhausen’s work from a present-day perspective and see them as kind of precious and quaint.

But to me—and many who grew up watching his films—they are still AWESOME.

I think the reason Harryhausen’s work resonated—and still resonates—is because he started out as a boy fascinated by dinosaurs and creatures, which speaks to all of us who were children fascinated by dinosaurs and creatures.

When his parents took him when he was a boy to see the original version of King Kong, he was determined to figure out how to make a creature like Kong. He started out with string puppets and eventually began studying how to do animation. He even started a studio in his parents’ garage.

Eventually, he met Willis O’Brien, who animated King Kong and The Lost World. On Obrien’s advice, he began to study art and anatomy. He went to work for producer George Pal, working as an animator on a series of shorts called Puppetoons. When he entered the Army during World War II, he joined the Special Services Division under directors Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak. There he worked on propaganda films, including some that used stop-motion animation.

A few years after the war, he was hired for his first major motion picture: Mighty Joe Young. The film won the Academy Award for special effects.

For the next 30 years or so, Harryhausen made many films using his stop-motion animation technique (dubbed “Dynamation” by producer Charles Scheer, who worked with him on twelve feature films). Some of his most famous are It Came From Beneath The Sea, 20 Million Miles To Earth, The Valley Of Gwangi, The 3 Worlds Of Gulliver, The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad, Jason & The Argonauts, One Million Years B.C. and Clash Of The Titans.

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Jason & The Argonauts featured that army of skeletons I mentioned before, as well as a gigantic statue (based on the Colossus of Rhodes) that comes to life, a seven-headed hydra and an animated discus-throwing scene. Though the movie was not a box-office success at the time, it’s often been cited since as a classic of the genre.

Harryhausen’s feature film career ended with Clash Of The Titans because by 1981, the year of its release, special effects were already starting to evolve into what we are familiar with today.
Yet it’s difficult to imagine what we have today without Harryhausen’s pioneering work. Filmmakers such as Steven Speilberg, George Lucas, James Cameron, as well as many contemporary animators, cite Harryhausen as an influence. To film-lovers, his movies may not be great works in the sense of having complex characters, ingenious plots, or deep themes and ideas.

But, oh, they are SO much fun, SO imaginative, SO visceral.

Even Ross on Friends, who had a doctorate in paleontology, didn’t look down on a movie like The Valley Of Gwangi. In the episode The One Where Joey Speaks French, he looks like he’s enjoying the hell out of it, grinning like a kid. It’s not hard to imagine that Ross Geller was inspired to become a paleontologist because of a Harryhausen movie.

It’s not hard to imagine that Harryhausen inspired many people to a great variety of careers.

RIP, Ray. Thanks for all the fun and fanciful afternoons watching the creatures of our imaginations come to life on screen.