Review Date: Thursday, May 28, 2009
Pixar movies should be removed from the overall pool of summer reviews: they keep screwing up the curve. They're like the nerdy kid in math class who knows every formula by heart and makes the other students look like drooling morons in comparison. Except this nerdy kid is also effortlessly charming, tells the funniest jokes, treats everyone like his best pal, and holds deep and profound insight into human nature. And they're gonna throw Will Ferrell against that?!
Up continues the streak more or less begun when John Lasseter set up shop in a grungy East Bay hole in the wall. It tells a story at once utterly unique and yet brimming with the same wit and energy which define even the least successful Pixar projects. Still more disarming is the fact that the main character is a 78-year-old man: Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner), retired balloon salesman and the sort of curmudgeonly old coot who usually serves as straight man for whatever asinine twentysomething that normally headlines summer event pictures.
The first 10 minutes of Up constitute an extraordinary balancing act--potentially disastrous, but absolutely necessary in terms of the character--as a young Carl meets the love of his life, Ellie, and they go on to spend the next seven decades together. It's a minor masterpiece of exposition, conveyed all but wordlessly and yet cementing their devotion to each other in funny and touching (but never unduly saccharine) terms. More importantly, it tempers their largely ordinary life with the big dreams they have. They both aspire to the likes of intrepid explorer Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer) who launched a dirigible expedition to explore a mythic South American plateau and never returned. Up deftly conveys the reality of never pursuing such goals while still making their life together fruitful and fulfilling.
But that was then and this is now. Ellie is gone and Carl finds himself alone in the house they shared while evil corporate executives scheme to bulldoze it for high-rise space. Rather than knuckle under to their machinations, however, he pulls a fast one: launching a giant cloud of balloons from his chimney top and pulling the house into the stratosphere in search of Muntz's mythic plateau. He inadvertently brings along a guest--overly enthusiastic boy scout Russell (Jordan Nagai) whose irritatingly helpful manner hides a deep-set need for a father figure.
The bulk of Up concerns their adventures on the plateau, as they discover what Muntz was looking for and the methods he used to do it. Directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson apply the same creativity to the pay-off as they do to the set-up, conjuring a world that balances old-school Republic serials with quietly brilliant absurdity. The enthusiastic pacing never substitutes for imagination, which turns every cliché-ridden scenario into something new and unexpected.
Consider, for instance, the antagonistic dog pack serving as the villain's chief minions. They make for credible threats and Up certainly isn't the first film to portray canines in such a manner. But Docter and Peterson add a twist: collars which translate the animals' thoughts through wired speakers, allowing them to "talk." Turns out that, as threatening as they are, those Dobermans are still doggies at heart, and the juxtaposition makes for some of the film's funniest gags without once deterring from their status as a menace.
Neither does the energetic running time detract from the sense of character--developed as carefully as Pixar's other features--or the overall tone which expertly blends weird science, pulp adventure, generational bonding and some quiet wisdom about growing old. Up deftly side-steps undue sentiment, and yet still holds moments that can break your heart, while simultaneously conjuring suspense, thrills and exhilaration without the use of a single explosion. Beneath it all lies a rich study of human folly--the things we believe are important and the way we're often so wrong about them--delivered not with preachy hammer-blows but rather elegant subtleties woven almost invisibly into the fabric of the narrative.
The most shocking thing about Up--a trick Pixar plays with eerie regularity--is how easy it all seems. How smooth and elementary and head-slappingly simple. You watch it and think, "why can't everyone else do it as well as this? It's a snap!" It isn't of course, and the skillful manner in which Up trundles out its tale become all the more wondrous when considering the Herculean effort that went into such effortlessness. Every time they release a new film, we think it's going to be the boner. Every time, it looks like the Pixar gang is finally getting ready to drop the ball. And then, when our guard is down, they hit us with yet another sucker punch and remind us how wonderful the movies can be. Up holds an honored place in their canon: rapidly becoming the greatest, pound for pound, that the medium has ever seen.
Mania Grade: A
Reviewed Format: Theatrical
Running Time: 1 hr. & 36 min.
Starring: Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, Delroy Lindo, Bob Peterson, Jerome Ranft and John Ratzenberger
Written By: Bob Peterson
Directed By: Pete Docter and Bob Peterson
Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar