Bill Plympton on The Flying House: Fantasy Film Podcast

Couples Night in the Cockpit: A moment from Winsor McCay's THE FLYING HOUSE.
Couples Night in the Cockpit: A moment from Winsor McCay's THE FLYING HOUSE.

Think of it as one spiritual brother reaching out to another over the span of almost an entire century: Bill Plympton — the innovative animator known for his edgy surrealism and distinctive, hand-drawn style — has decided to rejuvenate the work of one of animation’s first fathers, Winsor McCay, the man who painstakingly and single-handedly created such elegant, landmark films as GERTIE THE DINOSAUR and LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND. Plympton has reached into McCay’s catalogue to pull out THE FLYING HOUSE — an UP-like adventure in which a married couple take wing in their homestead — and with the help of a small corps of volunteers, is busy cleaning up the footage, adding a soundtrack voiced by Patricia Clarkson and Matthew Modine, and, in a move that’s controversial only until you see how pretty it looks, added a delicate color palette to the original black and white footage.
Plympton and I talk about the McCay project, as well his work on the new Weird Al video, TMZ, and his new book, the comprehensive survey, Independently Animated: Bill Plympton: The Life and Art of the King of Indie Animation (which you can purchase here, if you’re of a mind). Click on the player to hear the show.

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2nd Annual Wonder Awards Winners

Zoe Saldana is the Wonder Awards choice for Best Actress, in the Best Pic winner, AVATAR.
Zoe Saldana is the Wonder Awards choice for Best Actress, in the Best Pic winner, AVATAR.

It’s Sunday, March 7, and everyone is wondering what the winners will be. Well, wonder no more, because here are the official winners of this year’s Cinefantastique Wonder Awards. Oh sure, other people are tuning into the Oscar telecast to see whether Sandra Bullock takes home an Academy Award, but for aficionados of horror, fantasy, and science fiction cinema, the Wonders are the awards that really matter, because they offer a chance to recognize great films that are often denied Academy Award nominations because of their genre affiliation.
Of course, this year is a bit of an exception, because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has nominated two science fiction films for Best Picture, AVATAR and DISTRICT 9, along with one animated fantasy, UP. With several other Oscar nominations in technical categories, the genre has at least a fighting chance of winning some recognition from Academy voters.
Nevertheless, the Wonders are the true measure of achievement in the genre, voted on by experts with a life-long love of horror, fantasy, and science fiction – and more important, voted on by those imbued with that all-important Sense of Wonder.



  • James Cameron for AVATAR


  • Neil Blomkamp & Terri Tatchll for DISTRICT 9
  • Pete Docter, Bob Peterson (story by Docter, Peterson & Thomas McCarthy) for UP


  • Saoirse Ronan in THE LOVELY BONES


  •  Robert Downey Jr in SHERLOCK HOLMES
  • Sam Rockwell in MOON


  • Vera Farmiga in ORPHAN


  • Jackie Earle Haley in WATCHMEN






  •  Henry Selick for CORALINE


  • Mauro Fiore for AVATAR


  • James Cameron, John Refoua, Stephen E. Rivki for AVATAR


  • Michael Giacchino for STAR TREK


  • MOON


Up 4-Disc Combo Pack

Click to purchase
Click to purchase

Continuing the unassailable winning streak for animation studio Pixar, last summer’s UP (2009) arrives on Blu-Ray this week in a package that makes an adjective like ‘comprehensive’ seem inadequate.  We missed the film’s theatrical run, mostly out of indecision as to which version – standard 2D or the often heralded Disney Digital 3D – to make the effort to see, and so, like any good American, we just didn’t do anything.  Of course, UP is wonderful – we knew that already; for the last few years, we’ve been looking for weak spots in Pixar’s armor like Bilbo Baggins searching for the bare patch on Smaug’s breast plate only to find nothing.  Even CARS – a digital love letter to the world of NASCAR (an apparent national pastime which leaves us colder than a WWI trench) had an undeniable charm that out-stripped most competing animated fare
Both UP and WALL-E (2008) have represented a new direction for the studio toward more ‘adult’ themes (no, not that kind of adult theme) and more unusual narrative leaps; most critics were unified on the beauty and austerity of WALL-E’s breathlessly executed (and nearLY wordless) first act, featuring the titular robot on an abandoned Earth; however, many felt that the outer space adventure that filled the rest of the plot seemed almost jarringly trite – not living up to the promise of the gorgeous opening.  UP suffered similar complaints, but we found it a more heartfelt, captivating tale than WALL-E (which, make no mistake, we loved) and agree with those who place it among the very best films of the year – animated or not.
UP’s plot, roughly sketched, is about a recent widower, Carl Fredricksen (voiced wonderfully by Ed Asner) who uses thousands of balloons to fly his home to Paradise Falls in South America and fulfill a promise made to his late wife Ellie many years ago.  Complicating matters is a determined Wilderness Explorer named Russell (voiced by 9 year old Jordan Nagal), who was on Carl’s porch trying to secure an Elderly Assistance merit badge just before take off.  A freak storm blows the balloon very close to its destination, where Carl and Russell run afoul of disgraced explorer Charles Muntz (the great Christopher Plummer), a childhood hero of Carl and Ellie who has spent decades in the jungle looking for the notorious Monster of Paradise Falls, which happens to be the very same gigantic bird that has taken a shine to Russell and Carl.  We have friends in the publishing industry that occasionally receive early peeks at Pixar films for the purposes of book tie-ins, and in much the same way we didn’t believe that the hero of the previous Pixar film would be a robot who doesn’t talk, we were also dubious about the prospects of a septuagenarian and his cub scout friend pulling a Danny Deck Chair – heading to South America and finding lost worlds, giant birds, and talking dogs (forgot to mention that, didn’t we?).
But the heart of Pixar’s films isn’t plot; it’s characterization and execution delivered in equal measure.  Carl is drawn, literally and figuratively, with enough love and care to transcend the accepted limitations of animation.  Much has been said of the film’s opening movement, a montage of Carl and Ellie’s life together that should leave all but the archest military strongmen crippled with tears.  This couldn’t have pleased Disney or its corporate partners all that much, as it will likely leave very young children utterly puzzled while their parents-guardians crumble into fits of melancholy.  The tone changes drastically with the arrival of Russell and the voyage south, and the second half of the film becomes downright surreal.  How funny you find UP’s later sequences will depend largely on how funny you find Kevin the giant bird (so named by Russell) – a vision right out of a Chuck Jones cartoon (we could easily imagine Duck Dodgers spending a show engaged in a battle of wits with Kevin). 
Pixar also continues their tradition of casting actors rather than celebrities for the principal roles; Asner is an inspired choice for Carl, as the actor’s inherent gruffness nicely counteracts the weepier portions of the script.  Equally good as the still-proud Muntz, surrounded by mementos of his faded glory, is Plummer, who always excelled at playing larger-than-life peacock types.
Those fortunate to have BD capability will be laid out flat by the image quality of this release.  Details like the light filtered through the balloons as they pass by an apartment window, or the weave in the fabric of Russell’s scout shirt, or Carl’s subtle facial stubble come through and reveal the astonishing level of detail that Pixar’s digital rendering team have come up with.  The BD’s 1080p picture is the result of a direct digital download off Pixar’s own servers, resulting in the cleanest image possible, and what may be the best looking Pixar film on home video (UP is generally without the heavy filtering that the animators used on WALL-E, so even though both BD perfectly represent the vision of the respective filmmakers, UP “pops” a bit more). 
We also had to remember to keep turning down our receiver, forgetting how muscular a lossless DTS audio track for a Pixar film can be.  The feature can be played with a “Cine-Explore Mode” giving you a running PIP commentary from directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, which cannot be adjusted on the fly – you need to return to the menu screen.  Included with the feature on the first disc is the slapstick stork comedy short Partly Cloudy that ran with Up theatrically; a new short, Dug’s Special Mission (which almost plays like a deleted scene from the feature – again, not a bad thing). 
There’s also a featurette on the numerous demises scripted and eventually rejected for the villain Muntz; a longish piece about a trip that the principal animators took to an actual South American plateau; and a not-too-hard-to-find Easter Egg called, not surprisingly, The Egg, which contains some very trippy artwork featuring an abandoned story concept that had Muntz retaining his youth by drinking the contents of exotic eggs directly from the shell (presumably poor Kevin’s). Needless to say, all bonus features are in HD and look nearly as fabulous as the feature. 
The second BD disc contains another large helping of extra content, including the Global Guardian Badge Game (an interactive BD exclusive, you know, for kids).  Our own favorite extra, however, is a study of Carl and Muntz, Geriatric Heroes, charting the design and shaping of the unique characters.  Other docus include Canine Companions  (which goes over the creation of Muntz’s digital dog army) and Our Feathered Friend, Kevin (which gives insight into the research that went into the giant bird’s creation). 
There are 6 other worthwhile featurettes here as well, and all are in HD (not counting the promotional montage and theatrical trailers).  The set also contains a standard DVD (disc 1 of the DVD set) so that houses that don’t yet have BD can future proof their movie library) and a fourth disc featuring a digital copy of the film.

Sense of Wonder: How does Pixar keep "Up" the quality?

The plateau in the background deliberately evokes 1925s THE LOST WORLD
The plateau in the background deliberately evokes 1925's THE LOST WORLD

Having seen UP (2009) this weekend, I’m regretting remarks I made on the Chronic Rift podcast a few weeks ago, suggesting that the film might fall short of Pixar’s usual standards. As we know from the ecstatic review (including one from Cinefantastique’s own Dan Persons), there is quite a bit of sophisticated, adult story-telling in UP that is not even hinted in the coming attractions trailers, so instead of a silly fantasy about a grumpy old man and an annoying kid sailing through the air in a house lifted by balloons, I found myself watching a very rich film, filled with drama, pathos, humor, and action-adventure that pleased on almost every level, offering much for both children and their parents to enjoy.
I was particularly surprised that the plot centers around a journey to a “lost world” – a plateau in South American that bears a striking resemblance the the plateau in South America from th1925 silent film THE LOST WORLD, which was the first feature film to bring dinosaurs to life with stop-motion (courtesy of Willis O’Brien, who went on to KING KONG in 1933). There is something wonderfully cool about the visual reference, as it calls out to the Sense of Wonder that many of us felt as children, when we experienced so many fantastic adventures on the movie screen, which opened a window onto worlds that did not exist in the real world – but seemed as if they might, thanks to the incredible magic of the movies.
This kind of sprawling visual glory, filled with aerial excitementand vertiginous danger (which someone maintains its power to thrill despite the film’s good natured humor) is balanced withquieter character moments that engage the audience in a way that most summer blockbusters (see X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE or LAND OF THE LOST) fail to do. In a way, UP is a little bit like WALL-E, in that it begins with a long, essentially non-dialogue sequence that tells a very moving love story before the more conventional thrill ride begins, and although UP will not replace WALL-E in my heart, it deserves to stand alongside that masterpiece as another example of the seemingly endless supply of brilliant imagination and stunning crafstmanship that typify the Pixar output.
Which brings me to the question posed in my title: How does Pixar manage to maintain such a phenomenally high quality? We have long since passed the point where the law of averages should have caught up with them, yet like a gambler on a winning streak they keep defying the odds. Not only that: no matter how good their films, you would expect that the  journalistic balance – thanks to critics ever eager for a new storyline – should have shifted from “The new Pixar film is great” to “The new Pixar film is a disappointment.”
I myself have fallen prey to this tendency. After the thrill of THE INCREDIBLES, I wrote reviews suggesting that CARS and RATATOUILLE were good but not up the the standards of previous Pixar films. However, upon reviewing those films on DVD I find that they stand up much better than expected, making me want to retract much of my earlier criticism.
That sort of resiliency – the ability to bounce back and overcome the fatigue of familiarity that makes viewers compare the latest offering unfavorably to the fondly remembered first experience – is truly remarkable, and I find myself marvelling at how Pixar manages to pull this off, time after time.
When I think back on the relative short history of Pixar, it seems as if John Lasseteremerged as a full-fledged genius with TOY STORY in 1995. When word came down that he would turn the directorial reigns over to someone else for TOY STORY 2, which was conceived as a direct-to-video title, it seemed as if Lasseterwere moving into an executive position and letting the company drones do the actual work, and I feared the company would turn into a factory, turning out technically competent but uninspired DTV flicks (rather like Disney, with their numerous spin-offs laying waste to their classic legacy).
Instead, TOY STORY 2, which Lasseter ended up co-directing with Ash Brannon, turned out to be another theatrical blockbuster – and possibly an improvement upon the original. Since then, Lasseter has turned over the directorial reigns to a series of talented people, who have crafted a series of films that remain consistent in the qualities that identify them as “Pixar” products, without every descending into anonymous hackery.
In this regard, writer-director Brad Bird’s THE INCREDIBLES emerged as something of a stand-out, in that its action-adventure tone and human characters set it apart from previous Pixar films. This distinction made Bird seem less like a company man and more like an old-fashioned auteur, who had managed to craft a personal work within a studio system.
Yet as good as THE INCREDIBLES is, it no longer seems like an anomaly. Director and co-writer Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E is every bit as amazing and unique – it demands to be regarddas a great film, not just a fun animated movie. Likewise, with UP, Director and co-writer Pete Docter has shown that he too can deliver a film that is more than just “another” Pixar movie.
In short, we have reached a point at which we cannot finger an individual “star” in the Pixar firmament, an artist whose work shines brighter than the rest. Initially, it may have been John Lasseter; then it seemed like Brad Bird, and now Andrew Stanton and Pete Docterhave laid their claim with films that are as least as good as – and in some ways better than – those that came before. How can you have so much talent in one place without reaching a critical mass that leads to a mushroom-cloud explostion?
All joking aside, at least part of the reason for Pixar’s consistent quality is that, no matter who directs, there is almost always a brain trust of story development people and writers who contribute to each screenplay. What is remarkable is that this consistency has not hardened into a rigid formula. Each new film emerges with its own personality and its own delights.
With ten features films to their credit, Pixarhas yet to falter. It’s only human nature that viewers may prefer one title over another, but there’s not a one of them that is not worth repeat viewings. And the new ones seem to keep getting better and better.
In a way, it’s nothing short of a little min-miracle, which I wanted to acknowledge with my own little “amen.”

"Up" stays up at the box office

Pixar’s 3-D animated blockbuster UP remained aloft at the box office during its second weekend in theatres, despite strong competition from THE HANGOVER, which made its debut in second place. Meanwhile, the weekend’s big science fiction film debut, LAND OF THE LOST, came in a distant third.
UP earned $44.24-million, raising its two-week total to $137.3-million.
LAND OF THE LOST made its debut in over 3,500 theatres but earned only $19.5-million, below expectations for a comedy starring Will Ferrell.
As for other returning science fiction, fantasy, and horror films…
NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: BATTLE OF THE SMITHSONIAN was in fourth place with $14.6-million, $127.3-million total.
STAR TREK was in fifth place with $8.4-million, $222.8-million total
TERMINATOR SALVATION was in sixth place with $8.2-million.
DRAG ME TO HELL fell from fourth to seventh place in its second weekend with $7.3-million, yielding a two-week total of $28.5-million – typical for a generic horror film these days.
ANGELS & DEMONS was in eighth place with $6.5-million, $116.1-million total.
X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE dropped out of the Top Ten, falling from #8 to #11 with $1.86-million. After six weeks in theatres, the film has earned $174.3-million.

Up (2009) Trailer

Pixar’s latest computer-animated comedy – this tme in 3-D – opens this weekend. Edward Asner provides the voice of a grumpy old man who attaches balloons to his house and sails off for adventure. There is a sentimental, dramatic element to the film not apparent from the trailers, and reviewers are saying the film is another winner, even if the premise does not sound particularly exciting. Director: Pete Docter Bob Peterson. Voices: Jordan Nagai, John Ratzenberger. Studio: Buena Vista Pictures.

Up (2009)

carl_bus-shelter1_for_blog_v01In which we consider how an increasingly formidable animation studio is like a certain, humble but beneficial insect, and I — inveterate cat person — confess to an irrational love for a non-existant, talking dog. Hey, whaddya want? It’s Friday.
From MIGHTY MOVIE PODCAST, a review of Disney/Pixar’s UP

Up reviewed at Cannes

Hollywood Reporter’s Michael Rechtshaffen says that Pixar’s newest animated film – this time in 3-D – “raises the bar to wondrous new heights.”

Winsome, touching and arguably the funniest Pixar effort ever, the gorgeously rendered, high-flying adventure is a tidy 90-minute distillation of all the signature touches that came before it.
It’s also the ideal choice to serve as the first animated feature ever to open the Festival de Cannes, considering the way it also pays fond homage to cinema’s past, touching upon the works of Chaplin and Hitchcock, not to mention aspects of “It’s a Wonderful Life” “The Wizard of Oz” and, more recently, “About Schmidt.”