A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank:  #13

UP jjjj

2009, PG, 96 mins.

 

With the voices of:

Carl: Edward Asner / Russell: Jordan Nagai / Muntz: Christopher Plummer / Dug: Bob Peterson / Beta: Delroy Lindo / Gamma: Jerome Raft / Tom: John Ratzenberger

Directed by Pete Docter / Written by Bob Peterson.

"Old age has its pleasures, which, though different, are no less the pleasures of youth."

- W. Sommerset Maugham  

 

SCREENED IN
3D

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 distracting, 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 that is.   

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 story.  This 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 everything changes. 

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.  Then, 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 exploring partner.  

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. 

UP, even with its aggressive marketing campaign touting it as the first Disney 3D feature, is a transcending escapist entertainment regardless of its multi-dimensional artifice.  The film is a exuberant and provocative reminder of the power of artistic imagination: It tells a perilous and intriguing swashbuckling adventure tale combined with a sobering parable about friendship and how one lonely and depressed old coot reclaims his lost youthful vigor, which, in turn, shows that life’s infinite possibilities don’t end once you are in the winter of your existence.  UP is a film as mystifyingly extravagant and opulent as any of the previous Pixar canon: the animation here gives a startling sense of lifelike veracity to its characters and dilemmas, despite their odd outward appearances and the fantastical journey they embark on, not to mention that the lovely, Oscar-nomination worthy score by Giacchino (which echoes the best, full bodied efforts of John Williams in his prime) which gives the film even more gravitas.  Beyond that, UP is – aside from all of its artistic merits – a warm, inviting, and richly told hymn about the euphoric highs and depressing lows of life’s journey: it’s a story about love gained, lost, and reclaimed again in one form or another.  It’s also one of 2009’s most affectionately and peacefully stirring films…animated or not…that does not shamefully utilize Digital 3D as a crutch to both sell tickets (at a needlessly higher price point) and keep viewers in their seats.  UP champions good, old fashioned, and tried and true film techniques that, in the end, trumps its own high tech wizardry.  

That is UP’s proudest innovative endeavor.  Films like it defy the egregious label of being just "cartoons."

 
CrAiGeR's other
Film Reviews

 

THE INCREDIBLES  (2004)  jjjj

 

RATATOUILLE  (2007)  jjjj

 

WALL-E  (2008)  jjj

 

TOY STORY 3  (2010 jjj

 

BRAVE  (2012 jjj

 

 

  H O M E