Friday, June 5, 2009


Written and directed by:
Bob Peterson
Pete Docter

Featuring the voices of Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordon Nagai, Bob Peterson and Delroy Lindo.

I remember watching Beauty and the Beast as a child and being extremely excited and entranced. It was a feeling marked both by the majesty and the splendor of the film, as well as remnants of similar feelings from The Little Mermaid. I didn't necessarily have the language to express how I felt, but I know that I was living in a certain golden age of animation--one marked by crisp, tight storytelling, compelling characters and gorgeous visuals. It was great, then it ended. Most people like to point to Pocahontas as the film that marks the beginning of the end of said golden age. I'd go as far to say that it started with Aladdin, which marked a severe drop in quality between that film and its predecessor (Beauty and the Beast). Aladdin and The Lion King both have their moments, but they pale in comparison to Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid.

Now, as an adult, we are smack dab in the middle of another golden age. One need only watch the first ten minutes of Up (Pixar's tenth feature) to realize this--ten minutes of perfectly hewned storytelling, marked by rich, earned emotion. The movie opens with a young child named Carl Frederickson (voiced by Ed Asner) who watches newsreel footage of his favorite adventurer, Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) who explores South America and other far off places. Carl wishes that was him, and so does Ellie, a delightful young girl who befriends Carl through this shared passion for adventure and exploration. They eventually marry, and in a beautiful, mostly silent montage, we see the simple beauty that is their marriage. They love each other deeply, and they vow to voyage to Paradise Falls, like Charles Muntz. Everyday expenses and sudden acts of God get in their way. They grow older. Time marches on. It was a heavy way to open the movie, and just the right note. It clearly confused a lot of the children in the theater, from what I observed, but the sniffles and gasps from the adults were audible and plentiful.

Carl, now a widower becomes somewhat of a curmudgeonly recluse, never venturing much further than his front stoop. He is very attached to his home, which views as a symbol of his late wife Ellie. And one day, rather than being banished to a nursing home, Carl decides to fill his house with thousands of balloons and lift off (or up rather) for a voyage towards Paradise Falls. Also in the house (unbeknownst to Carl at the time of takeoff) is a plucky young Wilderness Explorer (think Boy Scouts) named Russell who is obsessed with obtaining his "assisting the elderly badge."

And really, I think that's enough plot description that the movie needs. This is a film that definitely stretches the idea of film as a visual medium. Stanley Kubrick once said that a marker for a good film is one where you can take the sound off and still entrance the viewer, sucking them into the world that has been created. Conversely, a marker of a bad film (according to Kubrick) is one in which you can take away the visuals, leaving only audio and the audience still follows along just the same. In fact, one might even find it prudent in this case to focus away from plot. Then, one doesn't notice how tangled and cluttered (plotwise) the film becomes towards the end. This is, surprisingly, of very little detriment to the film itself. It isn't necessarily the plot, or even the dialogue that makes this film so special. It's the way that Carl, while still cartoonish in apperance, has one of the most expressive and emotionally etched faces in recent cinematic memory. It's the way that Michael Giacchino's score takes us on a journey through the aforementioned ten minute montage in the beginning of the film. It's how the light is reflected from the hoards of balloons as Carl's house floats by a little girl's bedroom window. That is what I remember, as I suspect it is what most young viewers will remember too. Especialy since many of the film's heavier themes will understandably be lost on many children (more on that later).

It's such a joy to see animated films released by Pixar, especially when compared to those of Dreamworks. One of the reasons that Pixar continues to run laps around Dreamworks is that they have truly recognized the opportunity for animated films to evolve, not just visually, but in the way they tell their stories. Computer animation is all well and good. Up certainly uses it. But it doesn't rely on it the way something like, Monsters vs. Aliens does. The storytelling is what sets Pixar into a wholly different class all its own, whereas other studios seem much more willing (or obliged to, rather) talk down to their audiences (not that that sort of filmmaking doesn't have its place. There will always be those who prefer Shrek over Monsters Inc.) Dreamworks, as well as all of the other animation studios that aren't Pixar seem to be very fixated on the notion of animated films being a medium for big showy voice actors. Which is why the choice of Ed Asner to voice Carl in Up is so inspired. It's definitely an example of restraint paying off. For instance, Up features talking dogs. But in a clever departure, the dogs themselves aren't talking. Rather, their thoughts are vocalized through inventive collars around their necks created by a human scientist. This is a really imaginative way to sidestep the old cliche' of the talking animal in animated films. It's simple, yet there's so much one can do (and the filmmakers did) do with this idea.

Ultimately, while very impressive, Up does fall short of the magic of last year's WALL-E. It almost seems unfair to compare the two. No matter what Pixar followed it up with, WALL-E was always going to be a tough act to follow. One thing I will say is that the themes in Up are less obtuse than the themes of enviromentalism in WALL-E. I was kind of left wondering how many children, outside of their relationships with their grandparents, can truly wrap their head around the notion of not having enough time to accomplish all your dreams, living your life to the fullest, and freeing yourself of vices (physical or otherwise) that will hinder you from doing so. I'm not even 23 and I'm just now starting to feel it. I say thank God for thematic subtlety and ambiguity in a medium that doesn't often lend itself to such characteristics. Of course, there's talk of whether Up will finally be the first animated film since Beauty and the Beast to land a best picture nod at the Academy Awards. Many skeptics are saying "absolutely not," especially since WALL-E, which is arguably more "sophisticated" couldn't even manage. I'd wager that Up is a more likable movie, even if I didn't actually like as much as I did WALL-E. It's more fun and could definitely appeal to the Academy, whose median age is like 68 or something like that (lifelong membership will be the bane of that organization's existence, but that's another conversation). I'm skeptical, simply because the "Best Animated Feature" film is like a ghetto in the same way that the "Best Foreign Language Film" is in keeping said movies from cracking the best picture top five. Regardless, Up is definitely one for the ages. The year's not even half over yet, but this is top ten material if I ever saw it.

Grade: B+

1 comment:

Joe Shetina said...

I was amazed at how good Up was (at least compared to the amazing WALL*E). Definitely top ten material.