With each successive film, Pixar isn’t so much reinventing their formula but finding ways to tweak it, to push it in bold new directions of visual creativity and storytelling. Last year’s “Wall-E” took the company’s formula into its’ boldest territories to date, and the result was their best film to date. How the heck can you follow that up?
If you’re Pixar, with another effortless tale of imagination and of misfits on a journey of self-discovery. I’ll amend my review at the end when I get to watch the film in 3-D, but don’t think of the 2-D version as a pale imitation- the colors come out vibrantly, and the story, well, the story will grab you, regardless of whether you’re on the low end of the main character age bracket or the high end of it.
Pete Doctor (“Monsters Inc.”) and his co-director/screenwriter Bob Peterson (a Pixar secret weapon to be reckoned with over the years- he’ll be mentioned again later) start us off with an old-fashioned newsreel young Carl Fredrickson is watching which captures his imagination. In it, the famed explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) has trekked down to the elusive Paradise Falls, a vibrant land in South America that borders on mythic. Carl is immediately enchanted and inspired by Muntz. On his way home, he finds a kindred spirit in young Ellie, a spitfire of a girl (whose personality reminded me of the girls in Peanuts, with Carl being an unexpecting Charlie Brown) who considers herself every bit the explorer of Muntz. The two make a pact to one day follow in their hero’s footsteps to Paradise Falls.
What follows next is a montage of their long life together, an act of storytelling bliss- told without words, scored to the beautifully old-fashioned strains of Michael Giacchino’s music- to rival the beginning of “Wall-E.” They make a home for themselves, live a life of ups and downs, and their love for one another is unconditional. One day, Ellie dies, and- it would appear- their dreams of traveling to Paradise Falls along with her.
But life in the modern world is difficult for an old man like Carl (now voiced with rascally heart and humor by Ed Asner), who has to contend with an ever-expanding world, with change almost literally knocking on his front door (his house with Ellie is the only one left before “progress” can take it away) along with young Wilderness Explorers (almost beat-for-beat like the Boy Scouts) like Russell (Jordan Nagai) looking to get their badges in assisting the elderly. Carl’s got no patience for Russell, and no place in this world around him. So before they come to take him away to the old folks’ home, the old balloon salesman makes his home with Ellie into a floating ship, and takes off for Paradise Falls. Little does he know that Russell has tagged along, chasing a “snipe” underneath Mr. Fredrickson’s house. Soon the two are on the type of adventure that will make the old feel young again, and the young have to grow up fast.
After my grandmother’s death in 1991, my mother’s father became a world traveler. Starting off on a cruise to Alaska, he went to Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Newfoundland (among others) over the years, collecting albums worth of photographs from these locations. He also traveled all over the States, visiting friends and family. The stories he would tell when he came to visit were fascinating, although something I didn’t come to appreciate so fully until his own death in 2000. By that time, I’d also collected many stories of my own, both in my trips with the Lassiter Band in high school as well as in Boy Scouts (I made my Eagle Scout in 1992, and was inducted into the Order of the Arrow in 1993), including two trips out to the Philmont Scout Camp in New Mexico. The relationship that grew between us was an important one for me- it still is.
He would have loved “Up” I believe. I know I do. Apart from the personal identification with the story and characters I feel (even more the what I felt for Remy, the rat chef in “Ratatouille,” and the hopelessly romantic robot in “Wall-E”), it’s a typically beautiful Pixar film in story and cinematic scope- you will believe a house can fly, carried off by balloons to a world we all dream of, but few have the courage to travel to. It’s also packed with humor and heart, with the odd couple of Carl and Russell each on their own journeys, finding unlikely companionship at critical points in their lives, for Russell at a time when he most needs someone to be there for him, for Carl at a time when love loss leaves a hole only companionship can fill.
Over the years, Pixar has found so many ways to blend the two h’s together in unexpected and unforgettable ways, regardless of how dramatic the film got. The odd couple pairing of Marlin and Dory in “Finding Nemo.” The antagonistic competition between Woody and Buzz in “Toy Story.” The misunderstandings in “A Bug’s Life.” The fish-out-of-water scenarios in “Monsters Inc.”. In “Up,” the heart comes from Carl’s journey on a late-life adventure that shows him what he’s missed since Ellie’s passing. The humor, that comes from all over, from the fantasy scenarios of a balloon and wind-powered house in the sky to another odd couple pairing in Carl and Russell to the mythical bird that the two befriend along the way.
For me, though, the biggest laughs come from the dogs. Think the pelicans in “Nemo” and you almost have it. One in particular stands out in Dug (voiced by Peterson, who I’ll go ahead and say, should be on Oscar’s short-list for Best Supporting Actor, another reason they should give out an award for Best Voiceover performance), who- like the other dogs encountered at Paradise Falls, has been outfitted with a collar that allows his thoughts to be broadcast vocally. To say he marches to the beat of his own drummer is putting it lightly- he’s an outcast from his fellow dogs, and the clear breakout character. The kids will love him. I know the kid in me fell in love with him early on. He personifies that unconditional love we receive from canines that forgives our faults and rewards our generosity with loyalty. Dug has some of the best lines in the movie, true to a dog, and truly hilarious to boot.
Still, in the end, the film comes down to Carl and Russell. In a way, the film played for me like a wish fulfillment to share an adventure with my grandfather, although through our words over the years before his death, we didn’t have to go on any together to share them with one another. Watching the film, I couldn’t help but think that maybe- through Pixar’s wonderful film- we did get to share one after all. I know I felt him with me in the process of watching it.
For more on “Up” and its’ use of 3-D, check out my blog here.