Saturday, August 8, 2009

Up, Up With Pixar

A review I wrote a couple months ago, and am only now getting around to posting (when it's firmly non-topical).


I realized as I prepared to put down my thoughts about Pixar's latest, Up!, that the Journal Wunelle had been in existence long enough for me to have reviewed three or four of their films. Kinda makes a fella feel old. I thought about this as I was about to begin my review by saying I had a "thing" for Pixar, and by expressing my admiration for the company and my love for the present-day state of animation, blah blah blah. But I've said all this before, so many times that it sounded stale even to me, Mr.-No-Long-Term-Memory.

Anyway. I love Pixar, and this is the next thing. So there it is.

Co-directed by Pete Doctor and Bob Peterson, Up! tells the story of an elderly man and a young boy engaged in a grand adventure. The story begins with a flashback review of the life of our protagonist, the elderly Carl (voiced by Ed Asner). We first meet him as a young lad with a vivid imagination and a love of adventure. He's particularly taken with the intrepid superstar explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), who travels the globe in a giant dirigible in search of the unknown. One day young Carl meets a scrappy young girl, Ellie, who is perhaps even more of a fanatic for Explorer Muntz than he, and voilá!: Carl and Ellie are a match made in heaven.

After this quick setup, there follows an absolutely lovely and heart-tugging five minute whirlwind--and wordless--tour of Carl and Ellie's life together that takes us from youth to courtship and marriage and on up to the present day. Carl is an old man now, one who uses a walker and plods through his routine alone. I'll come back to this little flashback in a bit, but for now suffice it to say that this five minute sequence alone is almost worth the price of admission. It's deftly idiomatic and, like everything else Pixar does, stunningly beautiful to look at, and it's unexpectedly moving to boot--a really beautiful piece of film. It's not often that I have to choke back tears from a cartoon, but I've now seen Up! twice and this sequence was even more moving the second time around than the first.

Brought thus up to the present, we find Carl in the little frame house he has shared with Ellie, with skyscrapers going up all around him. The tiny house and yard in the midst of an explosion of new concrete and steel mark Carl as a crotchety old hold-out against the unstoppable tide of progress. When a harmless little altercation with one of the construction crews goes awry, Carl inadvertently draws what might be the first blood ever seen in a Pixar cartoon, and suddenly he is facing an enforced move to an assisted living facility.

It's all a hell of an emotional roller coaster ride, and it's quite the pickle for Carl, though of course we know what's coming. Carl made a career of selling balloons the local zoo, and so he falls back on what he knows: he thwarts the assisted-living plan at the last moment by releasing thousands of helium balloons attached with string to his house (down the chimney and tied to the fireplace grate!), which causes the house to lift from its foundations and fly away--an arresting image seen in every promo for the movie. (An aside: I love the untethered whimsy of cartoons. Bugs Bunny would reach just out of the frame and magically produce whatever prop he needed--a ladder, a hammer, a saw, perhaps some Acme liquid hole. And it's the same here: Where were all those balloons hiding? The whole bouquet is twice the size of the entire house! And what were the balloons tethered to before they were released to lift the house away? Prior to being released they'd have to have an anchor notably stronger, or heavier, than Carl's fully furnished house! But the cartoon makes it seem that the balloons only produce lift when they're freed; when under wraps--even if inflated--they're quite harmless! It's a fun manipulation of reality.) And with that upward lunge, Carl's long-delayed adventure has begun. The one big wrinkle in his plan comes in the form of a knock on the door as he sits in his easy chair in his living room, thousands of feet up as the house floats Southward. It seems that a young Wilderness Explorer named Russell--whom Carl thinks he has has previously dispatched permanently by sending the boy on a fool's errand--has had the bad timing to climb onto Carl's porch at just the moment the house was blasting off. And so we get an unusual buddy movie as the duo floats toward South America (the last known destination of Charles Muntz).

Like everything else Pixar does, this one satisfies on several levels. As always, the screen images are absolutely magnetic, wonderfully textured and lit. I say it every time, but once again it's so conspicuous that it would be remiss not to dwell on it a little: The visuals alone justify the movie's existence. Up! is a cartoon, and it looks like a cartoon, but in a different way from the classic Looney Toons- or Pink Panther-style stick drawings that serve as background. The image here is brimming with textures and detail, subtle and overt. (I've spent the last week in New York, and the Up! posters all around the city give one an opportunity to look at the film's images up close and revel in this attention to detail. The posters show Carl's and Russell's clothes up close, and with this kind of detail the clothing design becomes a big deal: it requires a cartoon costumer!) Likewise, the main characters are wonderfully made, quirky and fabulously caricatured (Carl's absurdly square jaw or Russell's melon-like roundness). Maybe it's because animation involves creating every facet of things, but Pixar's characters always seem so complete to me. I find I'm no more inclined to judge a Pixar character to be badly made than I would an actual person. I'm not sure if this is a suspension of disbelief thing or something else; but these main characters here are brilliantly done. Two old men and a few young kids and some dogs, and all are distinct and memorable.

And the film delivers on story as well, telling a tale that is a grand and entertaining spectacle (replete with those delightfully absurd cartoon touches), but also one that cuts much closer to emotional bone marrow than any cartoon I've seen before. An old man finds his youthful spirit by way of a young boy who needs his guidance: this seems routine enough. But Carl is alone because his true love and life's partner has died; he is an old man at the end of his life, and as his world unravels he is faced with forcible removal from his house and involuntary commitment to a nursing home, an event which would surely mark the end of Carl's life. The Incredibles and Ratatouille and especially Wall-e all had their touching moments, but nothing like this: Up! simply covers some heavy stuff for a cartoon. And it's an ambitious undertaking because of this. Pixar are not rewriting what a cartoon can do, but they are stretching the envelope in a way that's not guaranteed to sell. Up! is not an adult's movie, but there's a lot more here that will resonate with adults than just the visuals and sight gags common to most cartoons.

And indeed I'm not sure how it sells with me. The technical triumphs which always win my awe and respect with a Pixar film are here in spades, and as craft the movie is yet another glorious triumph. But while I cannot seem to tire of The Incredibles or Ratatouille, I don't know that I'll always be in the mood to watch the first 20 minutes of Up! But then again, I'm not always game to watch dark and heavy segments in other films either, so there needn't be any double standard. And rereading my previous Pixar reviews, I've been a bit slow to warm to the last two and yet they've risen with repeated viewings to the top of my list. So I'm inclined to be generous.

In the end, if I have any small reservations they're certainly not due to any shortcomings with the film. It's another effort I imagine any animation studio would be hugely proud to have in their resume.

Grade: A-


dbackdad said...

Great review! I agree with you on every point.

wunelle said...

Like with Pixar's last few, I find I think about the little details long afterward. Makes me want to get the DVD (which is not scheduled for release yet).