I mentioned yesterday that I would be back to Up. Near its beginning Up uses an interesting self-contained narrative block, a “wordless compressed narrative” that gains emotional power by what it leaves out. Up uses it to good effect by showing the unremarkable life of a married couple and giving it heft by compressing it into a series of moving snapshots.
WALL-E did this, in a relatively uncompressed form, showing the robot’s routines before they are interrupted. And Saving Private Ryan did it in the Omaha Beach scene that starts the movie. There it is a few hours over a wide area compressed into a tight series of scenes.
Aside from their impressive quality, these three sections share something else: they are all much better than their succeeding movies. Saving Private Ryan becomes a fairly routine WWII movie, with a few annoying Hallmark Card intrusions by the manipulative Spielberg. WALL-E turns into a limp satire of consumerism with cute anthropomorphic robots. I think people were seduced by that first half hour and neglected to be bothered by its other problems. And Up...
Up, I would say, does not fall down as badly, but does tie itself up into mundane narrative knots by the need for an evil protagonist, in this case a lost explorer who, by the order of events, has to be at least a century old, and murders other explorers so he can be the first to find a specimen of a large bird. All that takes a lot of narrative time which would have been better spent just exploring and having adventures. And developing the characters of Karl and Russell, who really could have handled it.
This method has been used interstitially, as in the snapshot flips in Run, Lola, Run, and the character bios Jean-Pierre Jeunet used in Ameilie and A Very Long Engagement, but those were all short. I'm sure the method has been around for a while, but I can't remember seeing it before, particularly at the same length ( something like half an hour in the case of Ryan). I’m not up on recent cinema (except, obviously, those I take my kids to).