“It’s just a little less Disney”
Much to the chagrin of anime fans everywhere, and in spite of the obvious differences and outright incompatibilities between the two, Americans still occasionally refer to animator and Studio Ghibli-founder Hayao Miyazaki as “the Walt Disney of Japan.” Though few on this side of the Pacific would care to imply such a lack of Yankee innovation, it’s more accurate to call Pixar Animation Studios “the Studio Ghibli of America.” Both studios have accrued numerous awards for their feature-length cartoons, all their films receive near unanimous critical appraise, and, if box office revenue is any indication, their respective publics in Japan and the U.S. have proven time and again that they will see anything these studios produce because of their impeccable track records.
Pixar is also more indebted to Studio Ghibli than Miyazaki ever was to Disney, a tasty bit of irony considering that Pixar is owned by Disney. I bet even John Lasseter, head of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, would agree: he gushes over the man he refers to as “Miyazaki-san” every chance he gets, and often states that one of his goals at Disney is to reach up to the higher bar Studio Ghibli has set. Pixar’s latest film, Up, written and directed by Pixar veterans Pete Docter and Bob Petersen (their last was 2001’s Monsters, Inc.), is the most blatantly Miyazaki-like feature Pixar has yet produced, a sign that either Pixar isn’t as brimming with original talent as claimed, or, hopefully, that Disney is beginning to mature out of the casual hegemony and borderline xenophobia that has plagued its films since the 1930s.
Like many great cartoons and the best of children’s literature, Up is a simple fable tailored to the imagination of a child, a story of an old man and a young boy flying to South America in a house suspended in the air by thousands of helium-filled balloons. Talking dogs, giant birds, and a famous explorer all turn up as the old man, a Spencer Tracy-like curmudgeon named Carl (Edward Asner), makes his way to Paradise Falls, an exotic South American locale where he and his recently deceased wife always dreamed of living since they were kids. The young boy who travels with him is a dorky, Asian-American Boy Scout named Russell (Jordan Nagai), and much of the film focuses on the curious relationships between old people and children, a recurring theme in Miyazaki’s work. There is, in fact, almost a total absence of middle-aged characters in the film, and the few that do come on screen (other than Carl and his wife when they are themselves middle-aged) are always either in the background or separated from Carl and Russell by some sort of physical barrier — a picket fence, the edge of a stage, a porch. The connection between the elderly and the very young is as essential to Up‘s emotional spine as it is to Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle — both of which deal with the fluid way children and old folks relate to one another — and Docter and Petersen execute it with nearly as much elegance as Miyazaki himself.
The Disney tradition rears its ugly head, however, in the form of Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), a Lindbergh-like explorer who starts out as Carl’s childhood role model and ends up being the most recent in a half-century-long string of vaguely British villains stretching back to Captain Hook in Peter Pan and Shere Khan in The Jungle Book and running up through Jafar in Aladdin and Scar in The Lion King (Muntz’s American accent does little to separate him from his peers). The boys at Pixar managed to slip in a trivial in-joke with the character’s name — Charles Mintz, with an I, was a film producer who tried to cross swords with Walt Disney before Mickey Mouse was born — but this bias toward the character automatically demotes him to a stock villain, granting him only a few eccentricities where character development should be. Even if the build-up to the classic scene where the villain reveals his malicious plans to the trapped protagonist is decidedly different here than in, say, Dr. No (or even Pixar’s own The Incredibles), Muntz remains, at his core, a textbook mad scientist, just fashioned to look like a Roaring Twenties aviator and with talking dogs and an Art Deco dirigible in place of his man-eating sharks and floating doom fortress. Naturally, Muntz meets the sort of lethal justice yearned for by conservative-minded audiences that haven’t changed their ways since 1962, and all the redemptive qualities of Studio Ghibli productions — such as Miyazaki’s refusal to accept the idea of unambiguous evil — are depressingly absent.
Not that redemption is nowhere to be found in Muntz. If he fails as a compelling character, he might serve well enough as a fairy tale symbol to make up for it. In the tradition of the Brothers Grimm and their horrifying witch in the gingerbread house, Docter and Petersen have created a villain who exists simply to warn children of dangers they may not be aware of — in this case, the dangerous tendency to trust and admire impressive or famous people, including one’s parents (young Russell’s father is totally absent, and it’s painfully clear that he’s a deadbeat). There is a disappointing amount of pandering to audience expectations going on, but Docter and Petersen deserve credit for at least trying to ignore Disney’s role as self-ordained moral instructor by releasing a family-oriented film that distrusts even the very idea of childhood role models, favoring something closer to mutual understanding between children and adults over the typical mentor and student dynamic.
Despite the presence of a distinctly Western villain — a slightly more sophisticated interpretation of the Devil in a medieval morality play — and tame vaudevillian antics, Up is more than a watering down of Eastern artistry with Euro-American claptrap. The film succeeds where so many Disney films have failed because Docter and Petersen refuse to treat their international source materials like quaint souvenirs. Just looking at the 1990s, Disney produced eight animated features in a row that turned everything from Greek mythology to Victor Hugo into ideologically identical musical comedies: Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan, and Tarzan. Up, on the other hand, bends over backwards to make sure that it neither plagiarizes nor bastardizes any of the films and books it draws inspiration from — in other words, Docter and Petersen actually treat Miyazaki with respect rather than Father-Knows-Best condescension.
Indeed, Up is one of the most internationally sensible (and sensitive) animated features ever made, at least in the United States, though I question whether or not the humor will translate well into other languages. The flavor of the narrative is definitely American, with its emphasis on pratfalls and frontier penetration, but not for a moment does it feel pushy, overbearing, or morally pedagogical, as most widely released American films tend to be. Here, the United States is little more than a geographical starting point for a journey that would resonate soundly with a child anywhere in the world, the specific architecture used in cityscapes and Carl’s house being the only real indicator of an American location. The bulk of the film takes place in something resembling the tepuis of Venezuela shuffled together with the deep Amazon, and extended sequences where Carl and Russell pull the floating house through the jungle call to mind the boat-dragging portions of Herzog’s colonialist epic Fitzcarraldo, a German-language film about an Irish rubber baron set in Peru.
This sort of innocent fondness for classic cinema is the one element Up shares more than any other with the Miyazaki film it most resembles, 1992’s Porco Rosso (both films also share parallel themes of aviation as a form of escape and bumpy friendships between an aging misanthrope and a small child). The Bogie persona runs deep through Porco, the titular biplane pilot who smothers his romantic core with feigned cynicism and cigarette smoke, and much more subtly through Carl, who cautiously follows the same pattern of grump-with-a-heart-of-gold with something close to tenderness, as if Docter and Petersen were trying not to be too obvious about who they borrowed from. Additional elements from The March of Time, Howard Hughes (his movies and personal exploits), and the works of John Huston also lend both films a magical sort of timelessness when their period-specific trimmings are combined with various bits of fantastical whimsy (anthropomorphic pigs, flying houses, etc.).
Such varied roots make it difficult to pinpoint exactly to what extent Up is an “American” cartoon. It was confusing enough when Miyazaki made an anime about Fascist Italy based on Hollywood films like Casablanca, but what do you do when Pixar turns around and uses that anime as partial inspiration for a story about a Midwesterner who flies to Latin America? Can Up, like its youthful protagonist, be considered an “Asian-American”?
Perhaps it’s indicative of just how thoroughly Disney has numbed American filmgoers that so many critics were quick to label Up a masterpiece: for every moment of true brilliance, there are two more of cliché, and what brilliance there is often succeeds in part because it doesn’t push the boundaries of subject matter too far beyond the familiar. Up seems more unique than it really is because, unlike most other Disney features, it is built not only on top of previous Disney features but on top of popular anime as well. It’s difficult to imagine this film being as successful as it is in an America where no one has heard of Hayao Miyazaki, or any of the other non-Oscar-approved anime masters who have become hugely popular in the West in the last twenty years — in fact, it’s difficult to imagine this film existing at all under such conditions. Disney films have always relied on the familiar to draw in crowds from all walks of life, and Up is no exception. The only difference is what exactly constitutes “the familiar”: even though Disney cartoons are no longer the only animated features Americans are ingesting, “the familiar” is just as non-threatening as it ever was. It’s just a little less Disney.
The critical success of Up, unlike its impressive box office returns, cannot be written off as parents taking their families to the movies for some wholesome light entertainment — even though that is precisely what Up is, and wonderfully so. Reviews containing words like “masterful,” “majestic,” and “breathtaking” betray a kind of anxiety on the part of American filmgoers, who are apparently so insecure about their enjoyment of an above-average Disney cartoon that they rush to upgrade it to the status of art so they won’t feel foolish, tossing Pixar such powerful adjectives like so many roses to a bullfighter. As grateful as I am that Disney briefly lessened its navel-gazing and looked outside its own borders for inspiration, that gratitude doesn’t erase the fact that Up is simply not a work of art in the same way a Miyazaki film is. There’s no shame in just being quality family entertainment — and Up is certainly far superior to recent duds like Land of the Lost and Imagine That — but a few pleasant patches of originality do not constitute something loftier.
Call me a cynic, but I don’t think the Disney Corporation is especially excited about competing with anime for the next half-century, and the best — or at least easiest — way to counteract new competition is to find out what they’re doing differently from you and then do it yourself (extra points if you can then convince people that your opponent never actually did it in the first place). Anyone who watches television during election season is aware of this process, and sleazy politicking applied to children’s cartoons does not good cinema make. If one must take something away from Up other than an enjoyable 96 minutes of PG comedy and clever art design, let it be that Disney has finally, for better or worse, admitted that America — and, by extension, Disney itself — does not reign supreme in the international animation world.