USA. 2009. Directed by Pete Docter and co-directed by Bob Peterson. Screenplay by Bob Peterson and Pete Docter. Story by Bob Peterson, Pete Docter and Thomas McCarthy. Starring: the voices of Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer, Bob Peterson, Delroy Lindo, Jerome Ranft, John Ratzenberger, David Kaye, Elie Docter and Jeremy Leary.
The latest wonderful movie from the geniuses at Pixar, Up at last brings us an adventure that so cheerfully and confidently goes against the grain of today's culture over-fixated on youth by presenting a hero that also happens to be a curmudgeonly old man. Most family adventure stories present their protagonists as the typical young gung-ho personalities that are at times actually too callow to realistically deal with their surroundings and as a result the adventures themselves are often so considerably dumbed down. This film, by centering on an older hero who has retained a nugget of adventurous idealism his whole life allows all the characters and story to have more real emotions and stakes.
The film first opens with wide-eyed, 7-year-old adventure scout named Carl Fredricksen, who dreams of going to a lush place in South America called Paradise Falls. He then meets his match in a girl named Ellie, another young explorer who shares the same dream and is even more avid than Carl is. This at first seems like the setup for a typical children’s adventure but then quickly and surprisingly segues into a lovely opening montage of their eventual courtship and later marriage. They save money to pursue their dream of traveling to Paradise Falls but everyday life and welfare intervenes with their savings. A tire breaks down, the house needs repairs and hospital bills stack up particularly as Ellie becomes progressively ill in their older years. This montage that is so impeccably and movingly told without dialogue and serves as merely the setup for our 78-year old protagonist, Carl (Ed Asner) and the rest of the movie is worth the price of admission all by itself.
Soon, Carl is left as a widower and is then threatened to be placed in a retirement home. So what does he do to honor Ellie’s memory and fulfill their dream without ever actually stepping outside his home? He tethers thousands of balloons to his house to float it to the sky. Everyone who has seen the poster or the previews already knows that but the sequence of the house making its ascent in its entirety is a pure, colorful marvel to behold on screen, particularly with the equally elegant score by Michael Giacchino, as it perfectly captures that blithe feeling one gets when seeing a hot air balloon lift off the ground.
Just when Carl is about to relax by himself all the way to Paradise Falls, however, he suddenly hears a startling knock on the door and finds that there is a stowaway on board, an Asian-American boy named Russell (Jordan Nagai) who is aspiring to be an adventure scout not unlike how Carl was when he was young. Carl, being the initially cranky man that he is, finds him a nuisance particularly after due to his earlier encounter with Russell and his unusual persistence to help out an elderly man for a merit badge from his scout leader. Of course, Carl does not have the option to kick him out of the house (although there is a brief, funny fantasy moment in which he fleetingly entertains that thought).
Much more about their eventually very touching bond and the rest of their adventure, I would hesitate to reveal, including the villain of the story that Pixar wisely makes a point of not revealing too much and does arrive as something of a meaningful surprise in this one. What I will mention are some ingenious, inspired sights and ideas in the film. One is how they skewer the old, silly cliché of talking dogs with some dogs Carl and Russell encounter. Audiences have complained for years about how dogs moving their mouths to talk about humans always look so ridiculous, no matter how hard they try to make it convincing with special effects (the truly awful Good Boy! comes to mind from several years back). This movie comes up with the brilliant, satirical solution of having collars around the dogs’ necks that hilariously act like ventriloquist sound devices that translate the dogs’ thoughts into human language.
Another is the huge, magnificent airship that Carl and Russell later end up in, which perhaps takes its slight cue from some of Hayao Miyazaki’s films such as Castle in the Sky or Howl’s Moving Castle. All the tiny details including the methods of steering, the wings and the ropes that tether the ship to its ballast are meticulously introduced to deliver all kinds of surprises in the climactic adventure. That it belongs to the story's antagonist is crucial, as contrasting it to the protagonist’s vehicle symbolically signifies the disparate personalities they represent in balancing self-aspirations and reality.
Up, after Ratatouille and WALL·E, is the third great movie in a row for Pixar and a personal triumph for director, Pete Docter for whom this is a significant leap forward from his last film, Monsters, Inc (in addition to having contributed to writing the Toy Story movies and WALL·E). It has, of course, become passé to say that Pixar is making more mature stories that will give adults as much, if not more, reason as children to go see these animated films. However, in another sense, just as many English scholars would give so much of their knowledge to relive their first thunderstruck impression of reading a Shakespeare play, I would envy children who get to enjoy these films on their own level and then later discover deeper levels anew as they grow up with repeat viewings over the years.
The movie also marks the first Pixar film rendered in 3-D and, although I am still not convinced about the necessity of the technique’s existence, I will say that it is as well done here as I have seen in any film so far. There are a few sequences that do get more visual enhancement due to the 3-D such as the dazzling house floating sequence in the beginning and they wisely completely avoid having objects purposely flying out of the screen to “grab” the audience (if anything, for me at least, that actually prevents me from getting closer to the movie itself). But the real strength of the film, as with all Pixar features, lies in the storytelling that, as of yet, 3-D has yet to really make a contribution to. Until the technique can offer something beyond a small, extra sense of visual spectacle (and perhaps James Cameron’s long-anticipated live-action 3-D film, Avatar coming in December will change this), there is not much lost watching a great movie like this in just the 2-D format.
Beyond the astonishing, crisp visual sights, however, what remains the most indelible in the end is Carl himself, so wonderfully and wittily voiced by the veteran actor, Ed Asner. This is where the montage is once again so key because we need it to understand the depths beyond Carl who may seem like just a lonely, cranky old man we see around the block before the adventure starts where he proves to be more physically agile than we expect (though never in an impossible way). The contribution of writer, Thomas McCarthy, whose last film was the wonderful The Visitor, must have been invaluable to understanding that similar theme of a man breaking free from years of emotional inertia and regaining vitality and meaning in his life. And the movie never makes the misstep of having Carl foolishly sidelined or outsmarted by the child, Russell (adorably voiced without cloying by newcomer Jordan Nagai). Not that Russell does not serve as a nice point of empathy for kids but Carl remains the hero and this is centrally his story.
As aforementioned, Up, like all true and great family movies, will appeal to kids and adults in different ways but I would particularly recommend that grandparents take their young grandchildren to see this or vice versa. By having younger audiences cheer for a hero who carries a lifetime of experience and heart and the adults identify with a hero who rejuvenates himself through adventure, watching this could bridge some gaps that neither they nor their grandparents knew existed. And if that sounds a bit too serious, only the Pixar folks can combine that with an exuberant adventure that resists conforming to Hollywood clichés and familiar genre conventions.