Up: Flying High

If most animated movies – Ice Age, Madagscar, Shark Tale – are little more satisfying or memorable than the Happy Meals that advertise them, then Up is the really good meal out you treat yourself to once or twice year. Not quite the best meal you’ll have, not perfect  – some of the flaws may even be glaring – but it’s still special.

Pixar, you see, dare to go another mile with animation. I wouldn’t call this a kids’ film – it’s a family one, in the very best sense of that. The sort of film you see as a family and use it to talk with the children afterwards that scares them and you. Issues like being trapped by life or death of a family member; what you want to do with your life or the importance of not missing out on what life has for you. Wall-E was one of the best films of the year it was released in; not least for the largely silent opening section of Wall-E fruitlessly cleaning up a deserted planet. It never quite hit those heights again, but it’s charm, wit and humour enabled the big issues facing as individuals and a planet to raised and discussed. A rare thing in animation, and exactly what makes it such a good family film.

Up is, for me, similar. It’s opening 20 and it’s last 10 minutes are heart rending and brilliant. Marriage, childlessness, death, fatherlessness – all touched and handled. The rest of the film dips – at times alarmingly and predictably. That’s not always bad – the talking animal stuff is given an original spin with the dogs, for example. The problem comes when the characters’ quests are actually underway and the plot is in gear – it’s all just a little flat and formulaic in the way the film’s top and tail isn’t. That, though, is the film’s point – be careful what you wish for as it may be under your nose. Like Wall-E, Up falls short of the Toy Story films (or at least my memory of them) when they reach the films’  main body.  Faint praise? It’s not meant to be. This is still a film to treasure and remember; but not, ultimately, the best of it’s kind.

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Dr Parnassus: A World Beyond Your Imaginarium

The Imaginarium Of Dr Parnassus is not Terry Gilliam’s best film. Not by a long shot. It’s not as good as some Monty Python episodes, and certainly not in the same league as The Life Of Brian or The Holy Grail. It’s not even close to 12 Monkeys, Brazil or Time Bandits. Actually, I’m not quite so sure about that one – it’s been a long time, and I do need to revisit it to discover if it’s as good as I remember. But the joy of this film is just that – it’s joy. It’s film-making to the full, with vision, passion, energy and imagination as raw fuel.

Watching it helped me put my finger on something   – that as many good films as I’ve seen this year, most of them are based on or inspired by something. This, though, was born of an original and personal vision, hammered out on the anvil of love and tragedy (isn’t that always the case somehow and somewhere with Gilliam?). It’s far from perfect; at times it’s all over the place and out of control. The parts that shouldn’t work, do – how do you solve the death midway through filming of the film’s most gifted and charismatic presence? The well publicised solution works perfectly. The parts that look like refugees from Python’s cutting room floor are memorable but don’t quite fit – dancing policemen, for example. Does it matter? Yes, but no. Energy, passion and vision carries us through, and the performers all ply their trade with heart and soul and aplomb.

What’s all this worth? Compare and contrast as follows. Joe Wright’s films (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, The Solist) may mostly win better reviews and more awards, but trust me when I say that for all it’s flaws, this is the film you will remember with a smile ten years on late at night, struggling for sleep. The next morning you’ll find a cheap copy, slide it into your next-gen DVD player and be transported by a flawed work of vaulting ambition to shame the more worthy and feted. See it where it belongs while you can.

Creation

So autumn arrives, and with it cinemas start to fill with Serious Films About Serious Things, with this being the prime spot for releasing  films hopeful of award nomination.. This season, the tranche of weighty tomes begins at The Beginning.

2009 is Darwin’s year. 20o years after his birth, 150 years after the publication of On The Origin Of  Species, there’s an inevitability to this project. Doubtless encouraged by the high-profile debates of the last few years that arose out of Richard Dawkins et al, this film chooses to tell just one part of Darwin’s story – his voyages on the Beagle are here long gone, now seen only as part of his children’s bedtime stories. Instead we have the tale of how his revolutionary book came to be written, and it’s impact on the religious community, represented by a stern vicar and his religiously devoted wife. This is a story of a marriage under strain as two work out how to love and be loved, give and receive, prefer the needs of the other.

These on-screen Darwins make for a convincing couple – not least because the actors are married to one another; Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly are always watchable performers. Rightly, Darwin’s loss of Christian faith seems to be pointed more towards the death of his daughter than his research into evolution; and intriguingly we see a rational Darwin convinced of the benefits of seemingly ineffectual water therapy for his illnesses. I have no knowledge of accuracy of this, but it makes for an intriguing self-contradiction. So it’s doubtless a well intentioned film, that would like, I think, to offer more balance than the debates of recent years have tended to offer.

It’s a shame, then, that there are some significant weaknesses. One would be that there would have been more to gain by giving at least lip service to those Christians of the time who saw no conflict between Darwin’s theories and their faith, or even the Genesis creation poems. Many still don’t seem to grasp this, and it would have only added wieght and depth to the story to address this. Another let down is that while there is nothing wrong with the film’s central dramatic device – Darwin being visited by imaginings of his dead daughter  – the film’s shifts in time are often confusing and poorly signalled. That may be deliberate, but it carries hints of disrespect towards the viewer; what’s wrong with a simple caption? Finally, while the film is intelligent and reasoned, it is also just a little slow and ponderous. It takes itself just a little too seriously and slowly. Different from a mercifully absent tiresome worthiness, it could just do with a lightness of tone and deftness of touch.

This is, then a Serious Film About Serious Things. That doesn’t, though, have to mean being sombre. Wonder and joy walk hand in hand, and should have done here; sadly, the film lacks both.