Review: Up

up one sheet.jpgThere is no greater compliment that I can pay modern animated fare than to say that the best of them are now most properly viewed as films, not as animated films. 25 years ago we talked about “feature-length animation” but in the last few years we’ve seen such landmark achievements as Wall-E and Spirited Away, films that let us stop looking at how they’ve achieved the visuals, stop thinking about how much work it was, stop contemplating texture mapping, and just enjoy good storytelling.

Up joins that list of films that use animation to tell a story, that stand up as complex movies with story arcs, character development, back stories, and everything else we have learned to expect — nay, require — from good movies.
This is not a pean to the film, however: Up is not without its problems and a disturbing element in the story line that makes me take pause before I decide whether it’s appropriate for my children to see. But then again, I didn’t rave about Wall-E either, specifically because I view animation of this nature as films, not as cartoons, and so I hold them to the same standards I would any other fare.
As with all Pixar releases, Up starts with a very sweet short called Partly Cloudy, which nicely introduces some of the core themes in Up and shows off the amazing rendering of clouds and weather that the Pixar team have clearly mastered.

The story of Up is told in two parts.  The first part is a sweet, romantic backstory where two children meet and create an adventurers club based around the exploits of their hero, the larger-than-life Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer). The children are young Carl (who barely says a word) and young Ellie (voiced by Elie Docter) and they fall in love, get married, share their dream of having an adventure to exotic Paradise Falls, South America (like their hero Muntz) then share the disappointment of finding that they cannot have children. They grow old together and Ellie passes away, leaving an old, tired Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner). This first part is some of the nicest, sweetest backstory I’ve ever seen in a movie, animated or otherwise. It’s very touching.

The second part opens with Carl in the same little house within which he and Ellie had shared all of their dreams and adulthood, but now it’s smack in the middle of a major construction site and after an altercation over a damaged mailbox, Carl’s going to be forcibly taken to a retirement home, pried out of his beloved home. He tricks the retirement home personnel and releases thousands of helium-filled balloons that rip the house out of its foundations and float it away into the sky.
Just prior to the squabble over the mailbox, a young 8yo boy Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai) has bothered Carl, bugging him to try and get that one last “helping the elderly” merit badge and become a full-fledged wilderness scout. To get rid of him, Carl sent Russell on a quest (read “wild goose chase”) to find and capture the “snipe” that’s been bothering him late at night.
Not long after the house floats up into the sky, Russell knocks on the door, rather surprising Carl: it turns out he was hiding under the house trying to trap the Snipe. They get to Paradise Falls, where Ellie had always wanted to go when they were children, after flying through a frightening storm and then encounter what looks like a Dr. Seuss character, a giant goofy-looking bird that Russell promptly names “Kevin”, even though after it’s obvious that the bird is a she, not a he. They then encounter Dug (voided by Bob Peterson), a dog with a computer collar that lets him speak. It’s a fun device and he’s one of the best parts of the film.
Carl, Russell, Kevin and Dug encounter Dug’s master, Charles Muntz, who has lived alone in Paradise Falls for decades with a pack of dogs (each with a voice collar) for company, and in a surprising twist find that he’s still obsessed with finding a living giant bird to prove he wasn’t a crackpot. That giant living bird?  You guessed it: Kevin.
There’s much adventure from this point, but the basic story line is Carl learning to let go of his nostalgic dreams of what his (and Ellie’s) life should have been and instead be present in the moment and open to the adventure of today. It’s a sweet story and there were a number of moments when I welled up with tears.
The problem that I had with Up was that these touching moments weren’t particularly well balanced by moments of great amusement or hilarity. In fact, the only funny element in the film were the talking dogs, and the best of their scenes was when Muntz, Carl and Russell are eating dinner and the pack of dogs are trying to steal food and then react crazily to Muntz accidentally saying “treat” in a sentence.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t tons of amusing touches in the film. Pixar has mastered an extraordinary attention to detail, from the old, ungrounded wall outlets in Carl’s house to the scene of dogs playing poker and betting dog bones, to the Cone of Shame that Dug has to wear when he disappoints Alpha, the pack leader. The dogs constantly referring to Russell as the “small mailman” was a nice running gag too.
But none of these were particularly funny, and when I go to an animated film that’s clearly aimed at children, I expect it to be entertaining and amusing, and Up just didn’t meet my expectations. I know, it’s rated PG, not G, and I know that just about every other critic thinks it’s wonderful, but for me, it was a very good movie, surprisingly touching and sweet, but just less entertaining than I expected.
Oh, and my earlier comment about a rather surprising twist in the storyline?  The Pixar team was careful to ensure that none of the dogs was ever hurt: even after their planes all crash into each other, the dogs have parachutes that let them float safely to earth, but when bad guy Charles Muntz falls off the airship, feebly clutching two or three balloons?  We just see him plummet into the clouds and, presumably, to his death. A surprising gaffe: one reason I stayed through the final credits was because I kept hoping they’d show him stuck in a tree, surrounded by grumbly dogs, or somehow rescued from a grisly death.
In the end, would I take my children (9 and 12) to see this film?  I’m not sure. Probably, but I’m just not sure…

2 comments on “Review: Up

  1. I remember getting dragged to see “Toy Story 2” – I wasn’t in the mood for a kid’s film.

    Or so I thought.

    Bravo to Pixar for raising the bar so high on both children’s films and films in toto.

  2. I noticed the same thing about the dogs not being harmed, but Muntz having a presumably horrid death. Did you notice the physical similarities between Muntz and his voice actor, Christopher Plummer? 🙂

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