A film review by Craig J. Koban
2009, PG, 96 mins.
2009, PG, 96 mins.
With the voices of:
"Old age has its pleasures, which, though different, are no less the pleasures of youth."
- W. Sommerset Maugham
I have a longtime friend that
I consider my knowledgeable, movie-going equal.
For the most part, we seem to maintain similar cinematic tastes, but
what constantly leaves a sour taste in my mouth is his stubborn and
steadfast refusal to see any animated films. He oftentimes infers that
it would be below his standards to reduce himself to seeing what he
shallowly refers to as “cartoons.”
I am sure that if I forced him to see UP that he would still find some reason or another to curmudgeonly respond about the results. However, after seeing UP for myself I can conclude that only a cold-hearted and cynical movie Scrooge would come out despising it. The new Pixar Animation Studios effort is a joyous, uplifting, frequently moving, and robustly vivacious celebration of unbridled creativity. Here is a bold, bright, colorful, and blissful film where the creator’s love of the material radiates throughout every frame.
Even better, perhaps, is that UP is also a sweet and gentle fable
with characters that – despite their relatively cartoonish appearance
– feel like living, breathing personas that we invest in and care about.
That’s the real coup de grace of the film.
It’s clear now that with recent efforts like THE
INCREDIBLES, RATATOUILLE, WALL-E
and now UP that Pixar has transcended being just a purveyor of
outstanding animated films: They
are successfully and consistently churning out some of the finest
films…period…over the last few years.
If anything, this is an animated movie that's got more of a
realistic emotional heartbeat than most live-action ones.
The film was directed by Pete
Docter and it's just his second Pixar venture (the cute and entertaining, but
somewhat forgettable, MONSTERS INC. was his first), but he also cut his
teeth co-writing such revered animated classics like TOY STORY and, most
recently, WALL-E. UP – whether we all like it or not – is the first
of what will regrettably be many Digital 3D efforts from Disney and – as far as
my research goes – is the very first animated film ever to open the
Cannes Film Festival (which it successfully did a few weeks ago).
There is no doubt that UP is set up as yet another potential box office behemoth
for the studio and
another massive summer tent pole effort (the film will do outrageous
numbers, to be sure). Yet,
all of the obnoxious hype about new fangled Digital 3-D technology and the
fact that this is, to be fair, a summer popcorn family entertainment may somehow
overshadow the film’s subtle strengths.
What makes UP such a transfixing and alluring ride is not just that
it has all of the beautiful and lush aesthetic flair that has made Pixar
the leading animation studio working today, but more that it also combines
its gorgeous imagery with an intimate character study and story that
breathes with a heartfelt poignancy and spirit.
That’s the delicate genius of PIXAR’s films that was
lost on recent
ones like DREAMWORKS' MONSTERS VS.
ALIENS : That film was about selling gimmicky and
in-your-face 3D imagery and showing off characters that seem to be created
for the soul purpose of being placed on as many Happy Meals as
possible. UP, on the wiser
and more modest extreme, opts for sophisticated and mature themes and
involving characters to take center stage…and what a refreshing choice
The film’s tender dramatic
high point comes as early as its opening sequence, a twelve minute
montage, which – like the first third of last year's WALL-E - is a
masterpiece of of
filmmaking economy with how it uses juxtaposed images to tell a moving
montage almost takes on the aura of a silent film that evokes the
poignancy of Chaplin at his finest moments:
We meet Carl and Ellie as two very young children growing up in
Depression-era America. Carl
is a starry-eyed dreamer that spends most of his waking moments in the
movie theatres watching newsreel footage (wonderfully envisioned) of the
world famous explorer, Charles Muntz (voiced with booming authority and
quiet menace by Christopher Plummer) who takes off for South America in a
gigantic dirigible to track down the infamous giant bird of Paradise
Falls. Carl, having seen Muntz's newsreel efforts innumerable
times, also wants to go.
Then he meets a girl...and
The cute and bubbly Ellie
enters Carl’s quiet life and the two hit it off famously: both have
similar lofty goals of exploring Paradise Falls and they will, one
fateful day, go there. Of course, both grow to realize that they are an inseparable
pair, and the film then becomes an endearing and ultimately
heartbreaking chronicle of their lives together.
They become an indivisible item, eventually marry and buy a lovely
character home (that needs work) and then begin the long and arduous task
of saving enough money to finally go to Paradise Falls.
Of course, financial setbacks hinder their dreams and – in one
surprising and sad moment, which is communicated in one single tracking
shot with no dialogue – we learn that the young couple cannot have
children. The way Docter
frames the sequence with the stirring and melancholic musical strings of
Michael Giacchino’s beautiful score is borderline tear inducing.
The couple then decides to
make the most of their lives and begin to fill their quaint and cozy home
with a lifetime of mementos and bittersweet memories.
The next seven decades – told mostly with images and little, if
any, dialogue – lovingly captures the essence of two people whose mutual
love for one another is the fuel that transcends their previous emotional
wounds: they are best friends.
as life dictates, Ellie serenely passes on and Carl is left all alone with
the house they built together, which essentially becomes the embodiment
and soul of the spirit of his diseased wife.
Getting older by the minute – and increasingly lonely – Carl
(now voiced by the great Ed Asner) is forced to live out his life as a
grumpy and obstinate recluse, maintaining his home to the most minute
detail as a memorial to his wife, often talking to it as if it were the
last living embodiment of her. Make
no mistake about it, this sequence, which is sparse and simply told, is
the most deftly realized and unbearably moving romances conjured on up on
the silver screen in a long time.
Carl, however, does not decide
to just simply pass on to the next life as a sulky and anti-social loner.
No, he decides that – to pay full homage to Ellie’s main goal
in life – he must finally visit Paradise Falls in a virtually
uncharted place deep into Venezuela.
However, Carl is devastated by the thought of allowing his home to
remain behind and, most likely, get bulldozered down for the sake of
greedy business interests (as is revealed in one of the film’s most
memorable, crafty, and amusing shots).
As a result, Carl turns to his adventuring spirit and concocts a
miraculous plan: He ties what appears to be thousands of helium-filled
balloons to his home – through his chimney – which allows the whole
house to lift off the ground and up into the skies, which Carl hopes will
take him right to Venezuela. Regrettably,
Carl is faces a distraction on route in the form of a rather unwanted
stowaway, a young, pint-sized, but aggressively noble minded and honor
bound Wilderness Explorer Scout named Russell (voiced with an infectiously
adorable naiveté and joyously upbeat energy by Jordan Nagai), who
appears at his doorstep; he showed up a day earlier to assist an
“elderly person” so he could finally get the last missing merit badge
that he oh-so-desperately wants, but now he becomes Carl’s unwitting
It would be a shame to discuss
in detail what happens next to this very oddly paired duo once they do, in
fact, reach Paradise Falls, other than to say that UP becomes a film of
inspired comic inventiveness and sumptuous, euphoric, and eye-gasmic stylishness. The reveal of
Paradise Falls and its overall design is an absolute triumph of art design
and innovation. The scope,
detail, and vibrancy of color palette here is extraordinary and shows no
shortcuts taken by Docter and his dedicated crew of animators to envision
this fantastical world (they actually went as far as to spending three days
reaching Monte Roraima by airplane, jeep, and then by helicopter and
proceeded to research and sketch all of the indigenous life
and dreamlike vistas of the land). UP
becomes a primal, transformative and wondrous journey for the viewers’
eyes: you can really see the passion and conscientiousness of the
artists on display here.
The film is, thankfully, very
funny as well, which helps to counterbalance the bleakness and despair of
the opening moments. The
opening newsreel footage of Charles Muntz’s maiden voyage is a nostalgic
treat, which rather lovingly captures its respective time period.
Russell is perhaps the film’s most agreeably amusing creation,
whose wide-eyed spunk and unwaveringly positive disposition acts as a nice foil
for Carl’s rather cantankerous attitude (the film falls under the
formula of a "buddy picture", I guess, but since the characters carry such
weight, we always buy into it). Carl
and Russell meet up with all sorts of odd and colorfully exotic
creations, like an army of dogs that are equipped with special collars that
reveal their “dog” thoughts, which gets plenty of hearty chuckles.
One dog in particular, named Dug, befriends the hapless pair of
misfits and becomes one of the film’s clumsy, but effortlessly
loveable, creations. It is
though this somewhat goofy canine that Carl and Russell learn that
Charles Muntz is still in South America looking for his prized bird to add
to his specimen museum aboard his large dirigible. Unfortunately, Russell befriends a rather large and unusual bird
he affectionately names Kevin, which sets the rest of the plot in motion.
The aging Muntz - who looks astonishingly like a cagey, wild eyed Kirk Douglas
- becomes the film’s understatedly ominous and hateful villain, which is
due in large part to the very imposing verbal inflections of Christopher Plummer.
Some mention needs to be made
about Disney’s choice to release the film in Digital 3D (regrettably,
the local theatre here in Saskatoon gives patrons no option to see a 2-D
presentation, which seems wrong, especially since I was forced to pay a
surcharge of $3.00 to see the 3D version).
The film, on its own, stands proudly and exultantly on its own
without the need for the attention-grabbing gimmick that is 3D.
What’s really interesting is how much I became predominantly immersed in the
story and characters, so much so that the 3D effects almost take a
backseat and became an
invisible entity. The point
here is a simple, but noteworthy one: Films
like UP that marry bravura technical brilliance with nuanced and
meaningful storytelling don’t need 3D tinkering.
Thankfully, UP clicks so rousingly and so jubilantly on all
cylinders that it never really flaunts the 3D spectacle with never-ending
"oo" and "ah" moments that typified
MONSTERS VS ALIENS. That film
could learn a whole lot from UP's choices.
That is UP’s proudest innovative endeavor. Films like it defy the egregious label of being just "cartoons."
THE INCREDIBLES (2004)
TOY STORY 3 (2010)