Sunday, June 07, 2009

In Theaters: Up

UP poster and IMPAwards link
UP is a deceptively simple film, a sweet character-driven story that becomes a wild and unpredictable epic without ever betraying itself. Pixar is basically the one studio left that can turn out original stories every summer and still walk away with lots of money, and what we have here is a true original; a story you’d never expect to get past the drawing board realized with a lot of dedication and commitment, touching on themes of old age, dreams lost and recaptured and realized, and bitter obsessions. Heavy stuff, but also lighter than air.
It’s the story of Carl (voiced by Ed Asner), who grew up wanting to become an adventurer, and met Ellie, who wanted the same. They were married, wanted to have kids but she couldn’t, tried to save up for a trip but never could, and she passed on- a series of events related heartbreakingly simply at the picture’s start. In the present, he’s now an old curmudgeon keeping his old house in order while around him, a major business development is being put up. When it seems as though he’ll finally be forced out, he uses leftover helium balloons from his time working at the zoo to lift his house off its foundations, turning it into an airship destined for the lost plateau of Paradise Falls, his and Ellie’s dream destination. It turns out, though, that a well-meaning junior Wilderness Explorer named Russell (Jordan Nagai) has inadvertently stowed along for the ride, and a bumpy half-landing forces the two to walk across the plateau, towing the house towards the resting place Ellie always envisioned. But they’re not alone- a legendary explorer (Christopher Plummer) is on the hunt for a rare bird, and when Russell meets the creature, his scout training compels him to help out.

I feel like I’m already spoiling too much, because part of the pleasure of the film is in the way the story unfolds. It starts very simply, as the story of one old man’s ambition, and adds the other elements slowly enough to avoid upsetting the balance. The plotting is both elegant and loopy; as goofy as it all is, all the elements fit together very well, and as is the standard at Pixar, plot movements are often indicated by very simple gestures or clear images, with the dialogue doing support work.

The film definitely evokes pulp adventure at times (with the plateau being reminiscent of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s LOST WORLD), but is hard to pin down to any one genre. You’ve got the sadness of Carl’s past, lots of physical comedy, a pack of talking dogs who are no smarter for their verbalization (co-writer-and-director Bob Peterson provides the voice of the lovable Dug as well as the sinister Alpha), and some action and adventure, and you get the feeling that the filmmakers had a distinct vision and weren’t too concerned about shoehorning it into any particular set of conventions.

The characters are what make this work; Carl can be sour and cranky but never truly comes across as just a bitter old man. He has a dream and a sense of adventure, and compassion and imagination, and these are never too deeply buried. Russell is a perfect counterpart, all motion and energy, not stupid but definitely reckless. Dug is, well, a dog, who thinks in dog logic and often thinks he hears a squirrel, and steals attention every time he’s on screen. Muntz, the explorer, is almost admirable, but he’s let a mad dream drag him away. All the character beats are natural and realistic, and as such, no matter how absurd the action gets it makes sense.

This is Pixar’s first film made in 3-D, but again, I was not able to see it in the format intended. I’m told it doesn’t make a huge difference either way, but the visuals are up to the company’s normal standard; perhaps not as elaborate as those in WALL-E, but the character designs are strong and the action is always clear and coherent, which is saying something when you bring in giant zeppelins, packs of talking dogs, and a flying house.

UP continues a tradition of great storytelling, building imaginative hilarity around a sweet, sad core. Its emotional content is simple and honest, and never at the expense of entertainment value. It’s hard to say where this ranks in Disney/Pixar’s charts, because you’ve only got the 90-100% range to work with for these guys, but it’s a picture well worth seeing, and the best of the summer so far.

Story by Bob Peterson, Thomas McCarthy, and Pete Docter
Written and Directed by Bob Peterson and Pete Docter
Grade: A

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