“A land lost in time”
I don’t know how long Pixar can keep it up, especially with a second sequel to Toy Story coming and a first sequel to Cars on the way, but as of now, no one does it better. Over the years, the studio has gone from heartfelt children’s fare to more heady dramas—still with a youthful touch, but deeper and more resonate than your standard “stick the kid in front of the screen and have quiet for a couple hours”. It began with Ratatouille, a tale so layered that you couldn’t remember how vague and almost unappealing the trailer looked, followed by Wall-E, with its power of visuals and emotions overcoming the need for dialogue to tell a heartfelt love story. And now, in 2009, Disney/Pixar brings us one of their best yet with Up. The trailer and studio pedigree may have gotten me in the seat, but the story, barely touched upon in the teaser, is what kept me enraptured and wanting more.
Going in, I was truly unaware of what was in store. My minimal knowledge from the advertisements was that it would tell the story of an elderly, crotchety old gentleman named Carl Fredricksen and his adventures traveling the world in his house, elevated and transformed into a blimp by hundreds of helium-filled balloons. Oh, and about him warming up to the young Wilderness Scout Russell who finds himself on Carl’s porch at the time of liftoff. However, right from the get-go, we see how much more Up is going to be. We are first introduced to a youngster in a movie theatre, watching newsreel footage of his hero Charles Muntz and the adventures he took to South America’s Paradise Falls. This young boy pretends to be his idol and stumbles upon a kindred soul in Ellie, a little girl dreaming of adventure as well. Through a lovely montage, we watch as these two grow up and become Carl and Ellie: a couple in love, heart and soul.
What I love about Pixar is its ability to throw easy out the window and put the hardships and rough times of life on screen. Life is dirty and full of tragedy, but without those difficulties, the wondrous moments wouldn’t be so worthwhile and memorable. Carl spies the money jar, he and his wife now very late in age, and decides to finally get two tickets to Venezuela and live their dream of traveling to South America. As happens, though, the moment he was going to surprise Ellie is the moment where she breaks down, needing to be hospitalized, soon passing on to the next world. Carl, without his better half, becomes a shut-in, wanting to be left alone in the house—the last piece of Ellie that he has. But, when an incident occurs, leading to his arrest and subsequent ruling to move to a nursing home, Frederickson decides to bring the house itself to Paradise Falls and once and for all do the thing he’s wanted to for over half a century. And all this happens in just the first 30 minutes or so. There is no one that does cartoon exposition better than Pixar, their stories so intricate and endearing, every character—whether human, animal, or inanimate object come to life—becomes a fully realized creature.
When the actual adventure portion of the tale begins, you are already fully engrossed in the journey, feeling for Carl and his loss and subsequent need to flee. As any old person trying to be left alone does, he becomes short and unfriendly with young Russell once the boy is let inside the “ship”, and with future acquaintances such as Dug the dog and Kevin the bird, he attempts to be uncompassionate to and unwanting of them. Events in his past will show why he feels this way, but the love we see that he had for his wife and fervor for life previously tell us that he will soon warm up to those around him as Up is not only a journey of adventure, but also of rediscovering one’s reason for living. Carl’s passion and need to get out and travel is reinvigorated once he acquires someone else to give his heart to.
Besides the wonderful story, Pixar once more shows how their studio is at the cutting edge of computer animation. They do not attempt to render realistic humans because they aren’t trying to mimic live-action. Instead, they keep to a stylistic choice throughout, keeping a unique creativity while still holding a place in the real world. The filters used and authenticity to old photographs and scraps of newspaper in the Fredricksen’s “book of adventures” is astonishing in its believability. I loved the aesthetic of Paradise Falls, including Kevin and his almost dinosaur-like bone structure, but completely bird exterior. Even the voice acting is inspired in its choices and successful across the board. Bringing in Ed Asner to handle Carl was a perfect marriage, giving the role a hard-edged growl, yet still allowing the softhearted soul to show when necessary. And young Jordan Nagai, playing Russell, is by far the best part of the film. His childlike naivety is believable and his speech pattern and boyish mannerisms allow the character to leap off the screen.
Disney’s partnership with Pixar definitely kept alive one of the best film studios around. Whether Pixar would have survived to tell the stories it has on its own is a question we won’t need to find an answer to. No one else would think to include dogs with collars that allow him or her to talk, let alone have it done in such a disjointed and easily distracted way. The constant train of thought changes when a squirrel or ball come into their view is priceless and the unorganized speech, calling to mind Yoda, really hits home as being exactly how I would have thought dogs would think. The filmmakers got every detail right and show once more why their studio is at the top of cinematic animation and very well could be at the top of cinema as a whole.
Scenes from Buena Vista Pictures’ Up (2009). Copyright © Buena Vista Pictures. All Rights Reserved.