Monday, September 20, 2010

Pixar's Up Movie Review

You have to wonder just how Pixar Animation Studios manages to churn out hit after hit – and not just money-making successes with highly profitable merchandising tie-ins, but quality animated works that never pander and are always thoughtful, interesting films even for the adults who accompany their children (or even those who just enjoy a well told story).

Part of what’s so spectacular about Pixar’s films is their penchant for establishing themselves not just as cartoons, but as real films. There is real shot composition, art direction, lighting design and cinematography. Just because all of these elements are rendered on a computer doesn’t make them devoid of artistry or any less integral to the whole experience of the film. Last year’s Up (co-directed by the Pixar team of writer/director Pete Docter and writer Bob Peterson) begins with ‘newsreel’ footage of an adventurer named Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer), who claims to have discovered a new species of bird in a mystical place called Paradise Falls in South America, but is then accused of being a fraud. Just look at the painstaking detail that went into crafting the computer animation to make it accurately reflect the old newsreels of the day – everything from the scratchy film to the warbly mono-channel sound.

Young Carl Fredericksen (voiced as an adult by Ed Asner) sits watching encapsulated in the movie house and then rushes home, mimicking Muntz’s adventures. On the way he meets a girl his age who shares his affinity for adventure. What follows is perhaps the best four or five minutes put on film last year. It is a musical montage sequence to rival the tear-jerking montage of Toy Story 2 which featured the Randy Newman song, “When She Loved Me.” This time, instead of a lyrical ballad sung by Sarah McLachlan we get the beauty of Michael Giacchino’s original score playing over a sequence that sums up the complexity, the happiness and the difficulties of spending a life with someone. A marriage is begun with hopes and dreams, which in turn fade away with the news that they won’t have children of their own. Hope returns with the promise of making an eventual trip to South America, but alas, life gets in the way – a storm fells a tree onto their home, the car needs repairs and the trip keeps getting put off. Carl and Ellie grow older and eventually illness strikes and Carl is left on his own, nothing but a few balloons to accompany him on the lonely walk home. All this is captured in a stunningly moving sequence with not a single word spoken. If you aren’t moved even a little, you have a stone where your heart belongs.

But Carl made a childhood promise to Ellie that they would go to Paradise Falls and so he finds a way to make it happen by setting his house aloft with the fantastic power of several thousand helium balloons. What he didn’t count on was a stowaway – a boy of about nine or ten years old named Russell, who seems all too eager to help a senior citizen in order to earn that final merit badge from his scout troop.

What happens on their journey I’ll mostly leave for you to discover if you choose to watch the film. What I will say is that another thing Pixar is masterful at is their observation of the little details in life. It’s their recognition of bizarre behavior in dogs and the ability to transform that into hilarious dialogue. Carl and Russell encounter some strange dogs that have special collars to transform their thoughts into English.

The real magic of Up is not just in its technical artistry or its great sense of humor and ability to keep the audience enthralled with well-placed action beats, but rather in its understanding of the human condition. Carl exhibits that part of all of us that regrets unfulfilled dreams and ambitions. His story is that of the classic journeyman whose voyage of self-discovery is necessary to find peace. No one wants to turn out to be Carl, but at least his story shows us there can be something good at the end of heartbreak and loss. It may be hard to impossible for most people to see a bit of themselves in a curmudgeon like Carl, but if universality were not an achieved goal of Pixar’s films, they wouldn’t be nearly as successful as they are.

Many fans and critics warmed much more easily to Up than to WALL-E, a film I chose as one of my favorites of the decade. You can’t really quantify a preference, and I can certainly understand and have no qualms about people choosing the sweet story of a lonely old man floating his house to South America with balloons to fulfill a long-ago made promise to his now deceased wife over that of a resilient little waste disposal robot that falls in love and goes on a wild space adventure. Either film you choose to watch (and I’d highly recommend both) will provide great laughs, tears and enough pleasure to last until the next Pixar gem comes along.

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