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Friday, July 03, 2009

musing pictures: UP

A brief musing on this latest Pixar/Disney collaboration.

The American Dream used to be for the young. The message was clear: here, in this land of opportunity, there is hope for any young, ambitious, hard-working individual to achieve the greatest of dreams. If you build it, they will come. That train engine from that popular children's story thinks he can, and indeed he does. With your life ahead of you, you are encouraged to charge forward, follow your dreams, wish upon that star!

But what does this American Dream become when you've spent forty five years hard at work, when what used to be a lifetime is now the duration of your upcoming "golden years"? The new Disney/Pixar feature, "UP", revises the American Dream for the retiring Boomer generation, and it does it so cleanly and effectively, you could miss the switch if you blink.

Disney films are often about transitions; from childhood to adolescence, from adolescence to adulthood, from the pre-romantic to the romantic stages of life. Snow White, Aurora and Cinderella find their princes-Charming, Pinnochio and Dumbo learn to fill their own shoes (a real boy, a flying elephant), Belle learns to see past the frightful mask of the Beast. The young characters have dreams, and they learn to achieve them. By the time the characters begin their adult lives, they have reached their cruising altitude. "Happily Ever After" is a shorthand for the stable, static years of middle-life, years which are devoid of turmoil and free from challenge.

"UP" is very much a story in this vein. The main character has his own dream, he achieves it in a way, and lives happily ever after. Here's the difference: This man's dream is not achieved in the dawn of his adult life, but at the height of his sunset. It's a dream from childhood, and a dream that he and his wife pursue for their entire long life together, but by the time she passes away, the dream is still unfulfilled. Now an old man, our crotchety hero has lived through the promised "happily ever after" years without the dream coming any closer. Perhaps this is the boomer's worst fear: to work and work for years and years, only to retire no closer to the goal, or too frail or too tired to enjoy it. The new vision for the American Dream outlined so elegantly in "UP" provides the same uplifting hope, the same motivational message as the old version: the dream can still live on, the elderly can still do great things, there is meaning in being old, there is life to be lived in the final act of our days.

Although "UP" is the first mainstream film to lay this message out so clearly (and so much in parallel with the old American Dream of earlier Disney films), other recent Hollywood pictures have addressed the same themes. "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" did so by presenting an old man growing young, showing by metaphor a lively, adventurous option for a retiree's life. Benjamin Button is physically young, but has the life experience of decades. He sees the world as an elderly man, but fulfills the dream of many aging people by being young, by getting younger. Much like the old man in "UP", Button has his most youthful adventures at the end of his life, when most people tend to slow down.

As the Baby Boomer generation grows older, it is interesting to watch Hollywood's message shift. I'm certain that for the next decade or two, there will be a massive shift in the kinds of stories Hollywood tells, and in the kinds of heroes Hollywood invents. they will be older, wiser, and probably just retiring when these new stories begin. I'm very curious to see how this unfolds.


1 comment:

Mattea said...

I just recently saw UP with my sister and we both thought it was superb. You make some great points about it being very different from previous Disney/Pixar movies.