According to a report in today’s New York Times, the race for Best Animated Film at this year’s Academy Awards has entered the official competitive hot zone. At this point in the year, it’s usually a foregone conclusion that the feature animation award will go to the hallowed-Pixar- masterpiece-that’s-better-than-any- live-action-film-you’ve-ever-seen. In this case, however, the hallowed masterwork in question, the delightful Up, isn’t the only highly decorated belle at the ball. The other one is Wes Anderson’s marvelous, one-of-a-kind, more-resonant-the-more-you-think-about-it Fantastic Mr. Fox. It’s a real showdown: digital vs. analog, fabled animation studio vs. new hipster animator on the block, and — most fascinatingly — eternal critical darling vs. possibly even more revered critical darling.
Right now, though, I’m less interested in who’s going to win the Oscar than in my own personal predilection for Fantastic Mr. Fox over Up. You see, it’s not that I in any way disliked the Pixar film; when I saw it back in May, I totally ate it up. Yet it’s the ticklishly droll and original enchantment of Fantastic Mr. Fox that, I admit, has cast my feelings about Pixar in a slightly new light.
At the end of last year, trying to nail down what was going to be on my 10 Best list, I watched Fantastic Mr. Fox a second time (only a few weeks after I’d seen it the first time), and I found myself even more happily addicted to its ramshackle surreal charms. The deadpan Roald Dahl-meets-Wes Anderson wit, the tactile fairy-tale diorama look, the suavely old-fashioned stop-motion technique, the delectable overlap between Mr. Fox’s world and our own, the performances of George Clooney and Meryl Streep (has Clooney ever been more charismatically…Clooney?) — it all cast its spell again. Then I saw Up a second time, a good six months after I’d seen it the first. Usually, the movies I love only grow for me upon repeated viewings, but that didn’t happen with Up. Once again, I adored the celebrated life-of-Carl-Fredricksen montage (a sequence that, if it doesn’t leave you a blubbering wreck, means that your heart is made of titanium), and the house-journey-by-balloon sustained that enchantment. But once Carl and Russell touch down near Carl’s nostalgic waterfall (which is only about 45 minutes into the story), the movie shifts from the bittersweet psychological to the antic logistical. It becomes a very elaborate, extended chase film about Carl and the boy trying to protect that glistening rainbow of a bird. Frankly, it played the second time as a little less magical.
I still found it dazzling and touching; on its own terms, Up is more or less a perfect film. But now there were moments that started to try my patience a bit too. (To be honest, I felt the same way, on a second viewing, about the spaceship half of WALL-E: The satire of techno-blob couch-potato America was inspired, but there was a little too much running around.) Up didn’t make the final cut of my 10 Best list, and the reason isn’t that I decided to go for the upstart underdog instead. It’s because I realized that after 10 films, the whole Pixar style, miraculous as it is, has become, as an experience, a little bit…standard. It’s not really taking us anywhere new.
Forty years ago, writing about the Beatles in Yellow Submarine, Pauline Kael, who dug the movie’s pop-art psychedelia a lot (without being overawed by it), said that Yellow Submarine “restores the pleasures of constant surprise, which was always the fun of good animation.” That’s a deliberately blasé, adult’s-eye-view of what a cartoon should be — not “art,” just a fun and eye-boggling ADD magic show. And that’s a view, I have to say, that I kind of subscribe to. For 15 years, Pixar has touched, dazzled, amazed, and — yes –surprised us, but in the last few years (starting, for me, with the overpraised Ratatouille), maybe Pixar has grown just a little less surprising. Whereas Fantastic Mr. Fox, in every primitive yet magical frame, unveils a sweetly unprecedented gimcrack counter-world. It’s the animated movie this year that never stopped surprising me into feeling like a kid again.
So which movie do you prefer, Up or Fantastic Mr. Fox? And does anyone else agree with me that the bravura, year-by-year stylistic steadiness of the whole Pixar thing has made their magic seem just a little less magical?