Up, 2009, dir. Pete Docter

I should note that the following kind of maybe sort of verges on vaguely spoiler-ish territory, so read with caution.

Up is a movie loaded with impressive accomplishment from the first frame to the last. Perhaps it’s most noteworthy effect is making an hour and a half long film feel like a two hour movie in terms of sheer scope and content. This isn’t to say that Up, at any point, drags; rather, I mean that in the hands of lesser storytellers, Up would have been a bloated 2-hour movie.

Through precise plotting and pacing, Peter Docter and Bob Peterson manage to fit a two-hour movie into three quarters of that time, and they do so without making their film feel like it was on the receiving end of a brutal hack-job in the editing room. Up never misses a beat, and it never slows down– and it never, ever feels unrelenting or overwhelming. This is a huge accomplishment, and if other filmmakers are paying attention, then they should be taking notes from the directors on how to achieve perfect pacing in their own films.

Up can be critiqued on it’s technical merits alone and still be considered great; the film shines in the areas of structure and organization in terms of how well the skeleton that makes up the story is crafted, and how carefully the plot is woven together. That would be a disservice to what Up is: A perfect example of why lovers of cinema go to the movies in the first place. If I may be hackneyed– and I may because dammit this is my blog– Up is, start to finish, pure movie magic, a moving story of love, loss, obsession, and coming to terms with each of these emotions.

And it’s about a cranky old man who flies to South America in his house by way of an imperial ton of balloons. (Those of you who know me might not be surprised that a movie whose protagonist is a grumpy curmudgeon is my kind of movie.)

Up‘s basic conceit– that Carl Fredrickson (Ed Asner, providing note-perfect vocals and creating what is easily my favorite Pixar character) flies his house to another continent– is pure fantasy, the kind of imaginative and creative story that Pixar has grown to be known for. And as spectacle, the film is utterly enthralling, filled with whimsy and wonder, from flying houses to air fortresses, and talking dogs to giant birds with rainbow plumage. The action of Up could very well have been siphoned straight out of the dreams of a child and translated to celluloid; it’s unhinged adventure at it’s finest. But Pixar films are rarely just what they seem to be on the surface, and Up is no exception: In fact, it may well be the most emotionally demanding Pixar film ever made in how it approaches the loss that ultimately sparks our hero’s adventure.

The film’s first ten minutes are perhaps the most emotional of any Pixar picture; the opening montage of the life Carl shared with his childhood sweetheart Ellie, containing no dialog, tells of the highs and lows of their time together, from the day of their wedding to the day of her death. Pixar has touched on themes of loss before– such as in The Incredibles and particularly Finding Nemo— but they have never been quite so matter-of-fact in presenting it. Up lays Carl’s loss bare, and we are granted the high honor of experiencing it along with him rather than just being privy to the effect that Ellie’s passing has on him as a person. Carl is a grumpy old man, but he earns the right to be, and we see exactly how he went from the Carl of his youth to the Carl the audience is acquainted with. (Tangent: Aside from introducing us to Carl and showing us his life story, Up‘s beginning montage does a marvelous job portraying the truth of relationships. They’re work. Even two people who love each other have trials they must overcome. In Carl and Ellie’s case, this means putting off their dream of adventuring in South America to deal with the day-to-day of modern living, and it means overcoming the harsh reality of discovering they cannot have children together. This might seem like a minor detail but it’s admirable to portray this kind of reality in a children’s adventure movie.) In a way, it’s the first ten minutes that make Carl’s eventual transition from grumpy old man to kindly grandfather figure palatable.

In Carl’s grand escape from the prison of an upscale, developing urban landscape, we meet Russell, a bright and enthusiastic but unrelentingly upbeat Wilderness Explorer who inadvertently hitchhikes with Carl on his journey to South America; the character toes the line of being painfully irritating, but never goes past it, and Jordan Nagai makes the kid downright lovable by the end of the first act. Endearing the character to us further is the revelation that Russell is missing someone in his life just like Carl, and while little time is spent exploring his own loss as fully as Carl’s (rightfully so of course), the time that is devoted to it speaks volumes.

Ultimately, the two are joined by Kevin, the aforementioned giant bird, and Dug, the aforementioned talking dog, and adventure ensues. The movie reaches incredible heights, culminating with a grand rescue attempt atop a massive zeppelin featuring dog-fighting (and I mean that as literally as possible) and sword-on-cane duels. (If you ever wanted to know what a fight between two armed geezers would look like, see Up.) But the movie never loses sight of it’s heart and soul, which lies in character; even in narrowly evading death, Russell is given richly deserved character and action beats, and Carl experiences catharsis. This is a Pixar hallmark– character before everything else– but Up may best exemplify the studio’s philosophy.

And the animation! The animation naturally gets better and better with each movie Pixar creates, so perhaps this isn’t a point necessarily worth visiting, but even after the spectacular animation present in Wall-E, they’ve still managed to out-do themselves with Up. The sheer variety of colors and tones is breathtaking, from the endless array of helium balloons holding Carl’s house aloft to the more subtle (but no less beautiful) shades found in the setting of the South American sun. And Up is a film that actually benefits from a 3-D presentation in a way that will make the 2-D presentation feel somewhat lesser; you may firmly count me among those who believe the 3-D gimmick is just another way to wrest money from moviegoers, but in Up‘s case I’m willing forgive the transparent cash-grab.

As I stare over this review, I realize it’s already a paragraph or two longer than I’d intended– and I’m not even running out of things to say yet. Up is a massive film fitted perfectly into the package of a much smaller one; it’s also a very moving and emotional film crafted into the mold of a high-adventure, high-fantasy tale. There are a hundred different directions this review could have gone, and that alone should tell you just how rich Up actually is, since I doubt my words could possibly properly convey the film’s robustness and depth. I think Pixar has set the bar higher than before, not just for competing studios but also for themselves; mark my words, in short order, Up will become the yardstick by which all other CG animated films are measured.

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One thought on “Up, 2009, dir. Pete Docter

  1. Pingback: Better Late Than Never: My Top 10 of 2009 « Andrew At The Cinema

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