Sunday, May 31, 2009
Only Pixar could make an animated film about a man who soars above the rain forests of South America in his own house realistic. Up follows two of Pixar’s biggest successes to date in Ratatouille and Wall•E, and anyone who thought the streak might end has another thing coming. The idea of an old man flying his house may sound straightforward on paper, but in the hands of director Pete Docter it becomes Pixar’s most subtly moving film to date, even as it is also one of its most action-packed.
The flying house in question belongs to Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner), who grew up a fan of explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). He befriended his future wife, Ellie, through a mutual love of adventure, and they pledge to one day move to Paradise Falls in Venezuela. But, as it so often does, life gets in the way. Before you know it, the pair grow old and Ellie dies. As contractors buy up all the land around Carl’s home to turn into high-priced condos, Carl decides to pay tribute to his wife and ties thousands of balloons to his house to fulfill their dream. The floating house calls to mind the great Hayao Miyazaki, the primary influence on Pixar's films, and his Castle in the Sky, while the scene where the house lifts off the ground for the first time reflect that legendary moment in Herzog's great Fitzcarraldo in which he successfully drags a boat across land. It's a moment of pure euphoria, a fulfillment of everyone's fantasy of just leaving it all behind.
Unwittingly accompanying Carl is Russell, a young scout who happened to be on the front porch when the house lifted. Russell is your usual cartoon kid: plucky, motor-mouthed and pudgy. But his purpose here is not, as is usually the case, to remind Carl of forgotten youth and to reinvigorate the spirit; the man tied balloons to his house to live on a waterfall in South America, for Pete’s sake. For once, the child doesn’t have all the answers, but then neither does Carl.
At this point the film moves from a quiet tearjerker into a full-bore adventure, a multi-colored ode to old-fashioned serials and jungle treks. Carl and Russell befriend a gigantic tropical bird Russell dubs “Kevin,” as well as a talking dog. Yes, there’s a talking dog, but the way in which he speaks is rather clever, and he says what a dog might say if one could really talk. Much of the comedy comes from these animal compatriots, but this is one of the more dramatic Pixar films yet produced.
Up is the second film directed by Pete Docter, who also gave us Pixar’s heretofore most heartbreaking number, and he pulls out all the stops here. The opening, nearly silent segment won’t leave a dry eye in the house, but it’s by no means the only touching moment of the 96 minutes. Pixar films famously do not pander to the audience – which is impressive, considering the median age is below puberty – but Docter visually explores the themes and characters more subtly and elegantly than ever before. Often he pauses on a small, framed photograph of Ellie located next to the helm, and he beautifully captures the majesty of the rain forest that Carl dreamed about for decades.
That love of nature inspires Carl when he discovers that a familiar face has also taken up residence at Paradise Falls solely to capture rare creatures. Docter, who came up for the story for Wall•E, clearly cares about the environment, but the message here is neither as pronounced nor as didactic as Pixar’s previous hit. At last Russell and Carl must face down the villain in an aerial showdown that would make Indiana Jones proud, a ten-minute battle that mixes breathtaking animation, high comedy and exhilarating action effortlessly.
But for all its extravagance, Up succeeds because of its intimacy. Like the very best of Pixar’s productions, it’s concerned not so much with gags but drama, and the incredible animation only fleshes out the characters more: every bit of Russell moves in perfect harmony with his incessant speaking and Carl, giant square head and all, personifies the gruff and the charming aspect of that Walter Mathau-esque Grumpy Old Man. This is not a film about lost youth but of acceptance of loss and the courage to move on, and few characters in Pixar's ouevre display Carl's strength. While the much-hyped 3-D aspect of the film is, by the sheer nature of the technology, a gimmick, Up is an iridescent, eye-popping adventure that gives itself enough space to breathe and reflect, and in many ways it’s the film Steven Spielberg might have made if he had been an animator. At this point I can’t even act surprised that Pixar yet again have given us the warmest, most human and most original film of the year.