Sunday, May 31, 2009

Who Reviews the Reviewers: Up

The last time I discussed reviewers, it was in response to Watchmen, which was far less universally celebrated than Pixar's Up. At the time, I was less than charitable towards Anthony Lane, who dismissed a film he clearly had no business reviewing. If I was harsh, I apologize: it is only that I lack tolerance for hacks. Clearly, the fault is mine.

A glance at Rotten Tomatoes reveals that Up, at present, has gained the approval of 98% of its reviewers, or 147 out of 150. Whenever I see statistics like these, I find myself wondering about the two percent who disagree. I thought it might be interesting to investigate further.

The first of these is Stephanie Zacharek, whose review can be found on Salon. Her primary issue with Up seems to be the lack of an artist's fingerprint; a human touch perhaps. I'm somewhat sympathetic to this complaint: in truth, it's a factor that did occur to me while watching the movie. I omitted mentioning this in my review, because I honestly don't consider it a flaw. In fact, I believe it to be a total absence of flaws: the price of perfection is a lack of idiosyncrasies. It's a trade off as far I'm concerned; nothing more. Overall, though, her review seems less than damning. While I suspect she's being a little hard on Pixar because of the company's stature, the review isn't unreasonable, and she makes some fascinating points.

Next, we turn to Joe Morgenstern, who reviewed Up for The Wall Street Journal. Once again, we have a review that's more mixed than outright negative. Morgenstern, like most who saw the film, was enamored by the opening montage. He also goes on to celebrate the movie's score, a point I applaud him for. As the review continues, he comes to the elements that didn't work, and they outnumber what he liked. The first thing he complains about is the character of Russell, who he found cloying. Personally, I enjoyed the character, but I can certainly understand where Morgenstern is coming from.

The traditional cartoon tropes, such as the large bird, bothered him as well. I can't fault someone for particulars of taste, but I found it odd that he described these as "creatures who wouldn't be out of place in a routine Disney feature...." It's a minor point, but I interpreted these - as well as the surreal backgrounds and strange stone formations - to be a tip of the hat to the old Warner Bros. Roadrunner/Wile E. Coyote cartoons. Morgenstern at one point complained that the movie felt like "a collection of lovely storyboards that coalesced incompletely or not at all." I wonder if the movie may have coalesced better had he considered the settings and characters under a different light.

But, while my experience differed, I found both of the above reviews intelligent and probing. The same, I fear, cannot be said for the last. Armond White, writing for the New York Press, offers more commentary than review. His attacks are disjointed and convoluted: he lashes out against the American automobile industry, Pixar, and - at one point - J.J. Abrams, director of Star Trek.

It is difficult to distill a point from White's ramblings, but he seems to be implying that Pixar is stealing ideas from classic films, simplifying them, then contributing to some sort of cultural conformity. Such attacks, while impeccably phrased, are hollow and without substance. White relies on metaphor rather than logic, and his "review" is an incoherent mess. His attempts to symbolically connect Pixar and its audience to the military industrial complex and "men who buy cars for phallic symbols" causes the reader to wonder if White bothered to think such things through in the least. I sincerely doubt that Pixar's films are contributing to either phenomenon: if anything, they've offered critiques of materialism and consumerism far more nuanced and intelligent than White's review.

There is room for disagreement, but I have little respect for faux intellectualism or meaningless drivel. As the first two reviews demonstrated, there are intelligent ways to offer a different opinion. White's diatribe isn't one of them.

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