UpReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/28/09 23:54:41
After most of the press screenings that I attend, a group of us will usually mass together for a few minutes in order to hash out what we have just seen and give voice to any preliminary opinions that we may feel like sharing with each other. Under normal circumstances, the main question on hand is the basic “Is it any good?” and the film in question is either celebrated or excoriated as everyone tests out the lines that they are already planning to include in their reviews. In the case of “Up,” the latest animated triumph from Pixar, the people behind such instant masterpieces as the “Toy Story” films, “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” the question did not center on whether it was any good or not--the sheer number of laughs, mixed in with a few sobs for good measure, heard throughout the screening was answer enough for that particular question--but whether it supplanted their previous offering, last summer’s “WALL*E,” as the best thing that they have ever produced. This is a might bold pronouncement for any film--especially one coming from a group that makes the production of extraordinary entertainment seem almost effortless (even their weakest project, 2006’s “Cars,” is a lot better than nine-tenths of the family films on the market these days) and especially one where the end credits were still running as the debate began. And yet, while I can’t quite say that it is Pixar’s best to date--my heart still belongs to “Ratatouille”--I can’t argue with anyone who would want to make such a pronouncement because it is a complete and utter joy from start to finish. Alternately funny, touching, exciting and visually dazzling, often all at once, this is the kind of film that you genuinely need to see twice--the first to marvel at the sights and sounds while rolling in the aisles from the amazing abundance of hilarious jokes on display and the second to go back and catch all of the equally impressive stuff that you might have missed the first time around between the marveling and the rolling in the aisles.Our hero here is arguably one of the most unlikely in the annals of commercial animation history--a grumpy 70-something ex-balloon salesman by the name of Carl Fredrickson (Ed Asner) who has become a virtual recluse in the wake of the death of his beloved wife Ellie, to whom he has transformed the ramshackle home where they spent their long and happy lives together into a shrine to her memory and a reminder of the major deferred dream of their life--a trip to a bucolic portion of South America known as Paradise Falls. Unfortunately, as is often the case with people who just want to be left the hell alone, Carl is often besieged by people who seem incapable of doing just that. Some of them are easily dealt with, such as Russell (Jordan Nagai), a young Wilderness Scout who wants to aid Carl in order to qualify for his Assisting The Elderly merit badge and who eagerly runs off in search of the snipe that has been vexing Carl in order to make that dream come true. Others, however, are a little trickier to deal with, as we realize when we discover that Carl’s house is the lone holdout of a massive development project that is going on around him. At first, things are at a relatively benign standoff between the two parties but when there is an accident involving Carl’s mailbox, he flies into a rage and whacks his genuinely apologetic adversary over the head with his cane (drawing real blood--a first for a Pixar film, if I am not mistaken). As a result, he is taken to court, deemed a public menace and ordered to be removed from his home the next day and placed in an assisted care facility.
Carl’s reaction to this turn of events is utterly inspired--when the authorities arrive the next day to remove him, he releases thousands of helium balloons that have been secured to his chimney and they generate enough uplift to pull the house from its foundation and set it aloft on a course for Paradise Falls. Overjoyed at his triumph, Carl sits down in his favorite easy chair for the long trip south when he is unexpectedly interrupted by, of all things, a knock on the door. It turns out that while he was setting the house afloat, Russell was under the porch in his relentless pursuit of the wily and elusive snipe. Carl grudgingly lets him inside and after mishaps both major (flying into a giant storm) and minor (let’s just say that Russell’s GPS device is not long for this world), the two miraculously make it, more or less, to Paradise Falls. Unfortunately, it is on the wrong side and after a near-disaster, the two them attempt to pull the still-floating house to the other side. What happens from this point, roughly a half-hour or so into the film, is best left for you to discover--all I will say is that Carl finds himself confronting both his past and future, Russell finds himself promising not to indulge in “rap music or flash dancing” in exchange for aiding Carl and that a chance encounter with a “snipe” leads both of them into an adventure that is both breathtaking and hilarious in equal measure.
One of the things that has made Pixar the most consistently dependable movie producers working today is that they have never been willing to simply rest upon the considerable laurels that they have accumulated over the years. Instead, with each subsequent film, they set new and unique challenges for themselves and then try to figure out how to pull them off. In the case of “Up,” the challenges they have set for themselves have more to do with the narrative aspects of the film than the technical ones. How do you take what seems on the surface to be a one-joke premise and flesh it out into a satisfying storyline? How do you maintain a proper balance between the funny/thrilling moments and the more emotionally charged material so that each gets their due without clashing uneasily with the other? How do you make a movie in which the two main characters are a grumpy senior citizen and an eager-to-please eight-year-old boy without the entire thing becoming mawkish. Not only does the screenplay handle these challenges, and many more to boot, it does so with such beauty and seeming ease that you may find yourself retroactively resenting most other recent movies for their inability to do so.
For example, the one-joke premise works beautifully because it isn’t treated as such--screenwriter Bob Peterson has instead used it as an inspired metaphor for how people who insist on obsessively living in the past in the wake of tragedy run the risk of being crushed by the very memories that they rely upon for solace if they don‘t eventually learn to let go and move on. As for the emotional shifts in tone, we already know from past experience that Pixar can easily inspire enormous laughs and jerk the occasional tear with more sentimental moments but what is amazing here is how deftly director Pete Docter moves between those different tones along the way--the opening montage showing the life shared by Carl and Ellie is especially amazing in the way that it moves from hilarity to heartbreak and back again with an astonishing degree of subtlety. As for the characters, they work not because famous people have provided the voices, as if often the case with most non-Pixar animation these days--but because they have been worked up into fully developed characters in the screenplay stage before being matched up with the perfect voices, even if they aren’t necessarily the most famous.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that “Up” is lacking in the visual department in any way. This time around, the challenge for the animators is to use the floating house as a way of visualizing notions of weight and gravity, notions that are notoriously hard to convincingly illustrate in animation. I can’t imagine how many manhours went into trying to achieve this illusion but the end result is both beautiful and strangely convincing--if people actually tried to haul around a house across a mountain ridge via balloon power, I am certain that it would look and feel a lot like this. And then, having established a certain degree of reality in this regard, the animators then begin to have fun with the idea and the result is an endless string of inspired sight gags involving our heroes and their bizarre task. If “WALL*E” was largely believed to be a tribute to the work of Charlie Chaplin in the way that it told its story almost entirely without dialogue, then the elaborate series of gags involving the floating house can be seen as a homage to the films of Buster Keaton, who used to specialize in coming up with amazingly complicated and often dangerous sight gags and then somehow pulling them off--if Keaton were alive today and able to see “Up,” I suspect he would come away from it feeling both a sense of admiration mixed with a little bit of jealousy that he didn’t think of the idea of dragging around a balloon-laden house himself.
“Up” is also notable as Pixar’s first full-length foray into 3-D animation and this, alas, is the source of the closest thing that it has to a flaw. To be sure, the 3-D is beautifully realized--as in the recent “Coraline,” it is used more as a way of immersing viewers into the surroundings than to simply chuck pointy objects at them--and will no doubt dazzle many moviegoers, especially younger ones who have never experienced such a thing before. The trouble is that one of the inevitable by-products of the 3-D moviegoing experience is that the glasses reduce the brightness of the picture by a significant degree and while this may not be a problem when the film in question is already on the dark side of the visual scale (such as “Coraline” or “My Bloody Valentine 3-D”), it is in a film like “Up” where much of the action takes place in bright surroundings--the brilliant blue skies that Carl and Russell sail through early lose wind up losing a lot of their luster as a result. If you plan on going to see “Up” twice--and again, that is a notion that is highly recommended--you should try to catch it once in 3-D and once in 2-D in order to see the difference for yourself. However, if one viewing is all that you are planning on, I would serious recommend opting for the 2-D version in order to experience it in the clearest manner possible.That quibble aside--and it is really a minor one in the grand scheme of things--“Up” is yet another stunning triumph for the good folks at Pixar and is sure to go down as one of the great cinematic triumphs of 2009. The only problem, at least from the perspective of a humble film critic, is trying to figure out a way of conveying in print just how truly spectacular it is without sounding absurdly hyperbolic. After much pondering, I think I have figured out just how to do it. You know how pretty much all of the big-ticket summer movies to appear so far (and I will even leave “Star Trek” out of the equation as I appear to be in the minority on that one) have been wan, woozy and uninspired wastes of time that not even the most devoted fanboys can really work up much enthusiasm for--junk like “Wolverine,” “Angels & Demons,” “Night at the Museum Deux” and “Terminator Salvation”? If you combined the crappiness of that particular quartet, it would almost approximate the greatness of “Up.”
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