Director: Pete Docter
Starring: Edward Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, Bob Peterson, Delroy Lindo, John Ratzenberger
Running Time: 96 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Immediately after watching Disney/Pixar's Up I briefly visited the internet movie database and noticed something very interesting. Despite being the most universally acclaimed animated film since, well, Pixar's last universally acclaimed animated film, and riding a tidal wave of critical and commercial support as well as a potential Best Picture nomination, the movie somehow managed to be "Down 50%" in popularity the week it hit DVD. The relatively simple explanation for that: People like me who (wisely) chose to skip it this theaters are just now seeing it and probably feeling slightly disappointed. "Pixar has done it again." We keep hearing that but the connotation isn't as positive as you'd like to believe. They've essentially been repeating themselves over and over again, but exceptionally well. Only this time their effort isn't exceptional (at least from a writing standpoint) and is a far cry in depth and complexity from last year's Wall-E, which, in a way, could be viewed as a positive. Kids will eat this up even if the middle portion of the plot resembles anything they could catch on Nick Jr.
The opening minutes are magical and moving until it settles into a familiar groove and the film has some difficulties following through on its own promise, struggling some to reconcile the more serious, adult issues with the silly adventure nonsense that pads the rest of the picture. It's fun, but predictable fable that's only partially about an elderly man coming to terms with his wife's death and learning to embrace life again with the help of a little boy. The rest of it is filled with endangered birds, diabolical explorers, dog pilots and a sub-plot that plays like something out of Beverly Hills Chihuahua. Of course, because it's Pixar and they are the best at what they do within this genre, they get away with it and make it seem important. It's recommendable, if just barely, because it succeeds in being an animated feature the whole family can enjoy. Beyond that, it accomplishes very little. Best Animated Film? Maybe. But Best Picture material this isn't, no matter how many extra nominees there are.
It begins with a touching romance between childhood friends Carl (Edward Asner) and Ellie as they bond over their shared passion for exploring and disgraced adventurer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), who we learn through newsreel footage was accused of being a fraud. In a narrative approach never employed in an animated film, in just a few silent minutes we flash forward in time to see Carl marry Ellie, fix up their dream home, take respective jobs as a zookeeper and balloon salesman, endure personal tragedy and save up to one day travel to Paradise Falls in South America. Ellie passes away before they can.
This entire sequence is as powerful as anything I've seen in an animated feature and the rest of the movie works largely because those images never leave the mind. Now a lonely, bitter old man cut off from the world, Carl grieves over the loss of his late wife, turning their run down house into a memorial even as recent neighborhood industrialization threatens to destroy it and send him to the Shady Oaks Retirement Home via court order. Rather than face that, he uses thousands of his helium balloons to lift the house from is foundation and send it soaring into the sky. Accidentally coming along for the ride is Russell (Jordan Nagai), an 8-year-old Wilderness Explorer trying to earn his final merit badge for "assisting the elderly."
The adventure that unfolds when they arrive in South America is fun, if also totally pedestrian, at least when stacked against the magical set-up. It mostly involves them rescuing rare, flightless bird named Kevin from the evil clutches of Carl's childhood idol Charles Muntz and his pack of wild dogs with talking translators for collars. The talking collars are more creepy than inventive. Why not just have the dogs talk? It is an animated film. Were they worried it would seem too unbelievable in a story where an old man attaches helium balloons to his house so he can fly out of the country?
In spite of my reservations during this section of the picture (at which I occasionally caught myself clock watching) the story is bolstered greatly by the friendship that develops between the two characters. The opening minutes of the story are so powerful and the central idea of escaping life's problems by just flying away in your house is rendered perfectly onscreen. Carl is curmudgeonly but the script smartly doesn't go too far by painting him as an inaccessible scrooge. Supposedly, Carl Frederickson is at least partially inspired by Spencer Tracy while you could easily say young Russell is based on every cute, but sometimes annoyingly precocious 8-year-old kid you've ever met.
As per the norm with Pixar the animation is astounding, this time with an even more vibrant color palette, even if I found Michael Giacchino's musical score overbearing at times. For what its worth, I do think they went in the right direction following up Wall-E with a lighter effort likely to have more broader appeal and be less to digest thematically for kids. It does deal with serious issues like death and child abandonment, but the social topics aren't all encompassing like they were in Wall-E, which could have been categorized as a Disney movie doubling as an adult science fiction parable. This isn't. It's very much a kid's movie with some appeal for adults. Obviously, I saw this in its regular format, but imagine the gimmick of 3-D would be more likely to lessen than bolster its impressive visuals.
While the actual adventure at the movie's center seems average compared to what leads them there I'd have a tough time coming with any alternatives that would have worked better. It is what it is. If this seems to be just about the most unenthusiastic endorsement I could possibly give a film, in its defense I had very little interest going in and had problems mustering up much excitement at the prospect of Pixar repeating themselves again. They've gone as far as they can go and you've got to wonder what's even left. I enjoyed myself, but aside from the opening minutes, didn't share in the deeper experience everyone else seemed to have watching the picture. Up is a good time, but not much more.