“Up” Is Really Down a Little

UpI saw Disney Pixar’s “Up” last night at New York’s famously outsized Ziegfeld Theater, where the audience was shockingly sparse. Only half of the seats in the house were filled, if that, which I found to be amazing and, for a Saturday evening show at one of the city’s premier cinema houses, somewhat appalling too. To be sure, Pixar films do well, and “Up” is well on its way to a healthy profit. But adjusted for ticket price inflation, the movie’s opening weekend gross makes it only the fifth-best performing of all of Pixar’s theatrical releases.

Up with Good Guys

On the whole, Pixar’s ability to drive audiences to the theaters seems less effective than it should be, and it’s disappointing that this movie’s receipts make for good but not great numbers. What more do audiences want? “Up” is a phenomenally touching, thoroughly amusing and wonderful ninety minutes of movie magic. (As an aside, take a look at these gorgeous production paintings from one of the movie’s artists, Lou Romano, for a taste of its terrific visual inventiveness. They’re brimming with heart.)

It’s almost no surprise that “Up” follows neatly in the footsteps of its predecessors. Each and every one of Pixar’s releases balance art, entertainment and commercial imperatives with a preternatural adroitness and stunning consistency that would seem truly rare. I can’t think of a movie studio — or a creative team in any medium, for that matter — that can match the sterling track record for quality that Pixar has recorded over the past fifteen years. For my money, every one of these films has been a home run.

Call me an idealist, but In a just world, that kind of sustained creative success should be tantamount to a force of nature, something unstoppable. It simply doesn’t seem right that a movie as banal as, say, “Wolverine” should earn almost US$20 million more than “Up” in its opening weekend. I know that so many complex factors go into the box office performance of any given film, but it would just be nice to see the good guys win for a change. Not just win, but it would be nice to see them wipe the floor with the competition — the much paler competition. It would make me feel a lot better about the way art works. And make no mistake: this stuff is art.

  1. I cannot speak for the rest of the (formerly) moving going public, but my household hasn’t been able to see a movie on Netflix, much less in a theater for going on one-year. If you haven’t heard, there is a recession on.

  2. Perhaps it had something to do with the preview. Maybe movies featuring unattractive humans—in this case an old man, and pudgy boy—fail to attract audiences. Movies about rats, robots, toys that come to life, attract viewers, and movies about attractive humans, like in The Increadibles, do the same, but throwing ugly humans into block-busters is kind of like designing a beautiful poster with Comic Sans. A smaller percentage of people are going to find it appealing, thus a smaller percentage of people will pay for it.

  3. @James: To suggest that featuring an unattractive character in a movie is comparable to using Comic Sans on an otherwise beautifully designed poster doesn’t make any sense. Look at Shrek, for example. I think it’s fair to say he is a marginally unattractive character, but that movie made a ton of money.

    @Khoi: “It would make me feel a lot better about the way art works. And make no mistake: this stuff is art.” Exactly. In most cases, art doesn’t typically seem to appeal to the mainstream.

    I think the fact that Pixar films in the past have done so well are the result of two factors:

    1) 3D animated films used to be a big deal; they were new and intriguing. Now there are several of them released every year, most of them probably not even very good.

    2) I think it’s pretty clear that, for the most part, a movie’s success is usually a result of both hype and luck. Isn’t that how art usually succeeds in the mainstream—not because it is beautiful or masterfully done, but because of other more superficial factors? If Mike Meyers and Eddie Murphy hadn’t been cast in Shrek, the movie probably wouldn’t have done very well.

  4. Box office success has always been a black art and only recently have producers been able to achieve some predictable success with franchise movies. With original films, it is nigh on impossible to predict and certainly shouldn’t be the way filmmakers make their films.

    It’s really hard to say but maybe the initial concept doesn’t appeal to cinema-goers or perhaps, the kids, as much as a robots or er, rats. This could even be a film which thrives on word of mouth and so will post only a small drop off in the coming weeks, unlike, thank god, Wolverine.

  5. Hi Khoi,
    I read your blog every day and love your comments. I saw Up, and it was amazing. I even cried… twice. I try to go to the movies at least once a month and I’ve found that I feel better “investing” that kind of money in movies that are visually appealing like UP and Coraline. It would never be the same to watch those movies in a tv screen or in my computer.

  6. Unfortunately I think money or popularity can be no indicator of good art. Just think of the popularity Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys used to enjoy. Maybe I’m being utterly cynical but I think it’s rare when something that is a great work of art also happens to be incredibly popular. Just as a final thought, Manet, Van Gogh and Jackson Pollock were (or still are) pretty unpopular with masses.

  7. I think they could have perhaps done a better job with the marketing campaign for the movie. The only posters that I recall seeing were plastered on the sides of bus stations and they weren’t even all that interesting, especially for a movie specifically done in 3D.

    Anyhow, I’m looking forward to watching the movie some time this week. Thanks for the Ziegfield recommendation!

  8. I agree with you Gene!
    Khoi, I wanted to ask you what do you think about the poster that they made for Up. There is something awkward for me about the type font that they used and how it is displayed. What do you think?

  9. I long ago made peace with the fact that the very best works of art will only extremely rarely be anything more than slightly popular.

    When something truly sublime like Wall-E achieves mass market success, I still chalk it up to good luck — good luck for connoisseurs like me and you that a giant company like ABC/Disney (who like every other corporate media company almost exclusively trades in schlock) will occasionally permit real artists to not only shine, but do so with a blockbuster production and marketing budget. For every The Wire, for example, there are quite literally a thousand shows made by and for intellectually lazy people. But at least we have The Wire.

    You lament what “should be”, and I’ll admit that it would be great if Hollywood made a hell of a lot more high-quality programming… but we live in a country where a slight majority still thinks humans and dinosaurs co-existed.

    Sturgeon’s law (“99% of everything is crap”) should be a consoling light for anyone frustrated by the success and pervasiveness of artless entertainment.

    This is not to say that it’s wrong to want to raise the bar, of course! What we need is more people who know better to just come out and say Wolverine (or whatever) is an insult to an adult’s intelligence instead of rah-rah-ing every superfun action film just because it appeals to their inner 12-year-old. This, I think, relates to your recent post about the lack of criticism in design: The movie universe is profoundly lacking in real criticism, at least in the mainstream, most likely because big media is sympatico with big Hollywood, I guess.

  10. I saw the movie this weekend as well. In fact this was the first movie me and my wife decided to try taking our 4 year old daughter to. The previews really didn’t ever tell you much about the story, other than an old man decided to tie a ton of colorful balloons to his house and fly away with a little scout who somehow gets caught up in the adventure.

    So to actually see the movie was AWESOME! I felt the story was a great mixture of humor, sadness, and growth. What made the movie even better to me was in the details. They did so well with all of the textures, and even the spots on the old mans skin. I also noticed that the old man slowly grew more and more stubble on his face.

    The stylistic manner in which the characters where all drawn also amazed me. I was just as impressed with the movie as you. The theater I was in was packed, and I never officially looked at the opening weekend numbers, but that is a shocker.

  11. …So by that I can conclude that you equate the success of a film by it’s monetary gain?

    Perhaps from a commercial point of view it wasn’t as successful; but you are referring to the Art. To measure the success of art you are wrong to compare it to the likes of wolverine.

    I’m confused by what you consider to be artistic success, I most certainly don’t link it with money.

    I am curious to hear what you think.

  12. I saw the movie this weekend too and had a similar experience at the theater here in Hawaii as well. My guess is that not only are people financially hurting but the Theater owners aren’t helping ease that pain.

    Have you seen the prices at the Concession lately – $5.00 minimum price for everything. Not to mention the 45 minutes minutes of advertisements, warnings and previews before the movie actually starts.

    The theater experience is slowly eroding and they don’t seem to want to stop it.

  13. Hi boss. 🙂 I saw the preview for Up just a few times and was really turned off by it. Instead of showing what it was about, they plastered logos from Disney and Pixar several times. Even the “teaser” on Up’s website devotes the first third to clips from other Disney/Pixar movies (and then a few seconds later sticks in a “From the directors of Monsters, Inc.”). They were too busy telling us it’s by the same people as their other successful movies to show why this one is special.

    I don’t think the problem is the economy. I saw three movies this weekend (one of them French) at various times throughout the day and all of them were packed.

  14. I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s first on my list. I love Pixar films.

    I suspect this is a movie whose audience will build with time and with word of mouth. The premise is a bit abstract for mainstream audiences, and the marketing has also been somewhat diffuse and ambiguous. Whereas Wall-E and Cars and Finding Nemo all had relatively traditional plots that audiences could easily connect with, the Up marketing makes it seem like the movie just takes you along for the ride. Maybe it does. I guess I’ll find out.

  15. My guess is that there’s a good chance that, generally speaking, meaningful, wholesome, timeless art (like Up) will win the day—financially—over vacuous trash (like Wolverine) in the long tail of sales over the years. The box office numbers are likely a measure of hype rather than quality.

  16. Up? Not.

    I went to see Up with my 3 year old daughter and 5 year old son. While the story was touching and the movie was beautiful, I wasn’t prepared to explain some of the adult issues that came up to my son and I wasn’t thrilled for my daughter to see some of the human-inflicted conflict that occurred. It’s my fault – I should’ve read IMDB before going, but I assumed Pixar content would be ok. Probably my least favorite Pixar film – such a disappointment.

  17. @Dave

    I don’t mean to pick at you, but the qualities of the story and the production were overwhelmed by exposure of the audience to “adult issues” and “human-inflicted conflict”? I haven’t seen the movie, and this is mostly a different topic; but I think we’re long past the time when our children should be vouchsafed within hermitically sealed culture bubbles.

    These sorts of issues are intrinsic to humanity. They’re as important for children to learn as are appreciation for literature and critical thinking skills, in my opinion.

  18. I haven’t had the opportunity to see Up yet however I have heard that it really is a good movie, laws of gravity aside. One reason I can see the movie poorly performing is because it is meant to be seen in 3D and truth be told not everyone wants to see a 3D movie. I do work as a freelance web design in Chicago and I have ventured into creating some 3D websites. The response on them is typically hit or miss. The same could be true with Up.

  19. @letscounthedays: I disagree, I don’t think the movie was MEANT to be seen in 3-D, if so then that would of released it into MORE theaters showing it in 3-D. I went and saw it on opening weekend with my 4 year old daughter and wife, and it wasn’t in 3-D, and it was still stunning, beautiful, and powerful.

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