Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Movie Review: Up

Up ****
Directed by:
Pete Docter
Written By: Bob Peterson.
Starring: Edward Asner (Carl Fredricksen), Christopher Plummer (Charles Muntz ), Jordan Nagai (Russell), Bob Peterson (Dug, Alpha), Delroy Lindo (Beta), Jerome Ranft (Gamma), John Ratzenberger (Construction Foreman Tom).

Pixar has become the most reliable source of entertainment in Hollywood. Even when they make an off film – like Cars – we are only disappointed because the film is merely really good, instead of great. Up, their latest feature, continues the winning streak of the last two years (with Ratatouille and Wall-E) in that it is one of the most entertaining, heartfelt movies of the year. Like Wall-E, I was amazed by how moved I was by this film. Perhaps I’m just a big suck, but the film had me in tears at several points.

Up tells the story of Carl Fredricksen (with the voice of Ed Asner, although he is animated to look more like Spencer Tracy), a recent widow struggling to hold onto the memories of his beloved wife Ellie. For years the two of them dreamed of travelling to Paradise Falls in South America, but life kept getting in their way and they never made it while Ellie was alive. Now old and cranky, Carl just wants to be left alone in his house – which is made difficult because his house stands in the way of a major real estate development. When it becomes clear that Carl’s house is going to be taken from him, he gets a bold idea. He attaches thousands upon thousands of helium balloons to his house, and plans on flying it down to Paradise Falls himself, where he can put the house down right where he and Ellie always dreamed they would. Miraculously his plan works, although Russell (Jordan Nagel), an annoying boy scout from the neighborhood who keeps harassing Carl because he wants to earn his “helping the elderly marriage badge”, goes along for the ride as well. Things go from bad to worse when they get to Paradise Falls, and although it is as beautiful as he imagined, it is not quite the peaceful splendor he thought. His boyhood idol Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), who relocated to Paradise Falls decades earlier in the hopes of catching a rare bird, is still there, and has gone slightly crazy.

The film looks incredible from beginning to end. The animation has come extremely far since the days of Pixar’s first film (Toy Story, 1995), and so now the human character no longer have the plastic feel that they once did. The character design has grown leaps and bounds. But also has the rest of the animation. This movie is brimming with color in every scene, and creates a wonderfully fantastical world. No one honestly believes that a house can be carried away by helium balloons, or that if it could it could be held down by an old man and a small boy, but in the world created by Pixar anything seems possible.

But as with all the Pixar movies, it is the writing that truly makes Up a special movie. Unlike most animated movies aimed at kids, which are all about fast motion and cheap jokes, Pixar spends the time to develop its story and its characters in believable ways. The montage at the beginning of the film that details Carl and his wife’s life together had me in tears with its simple, direct emotions. Later, as Carl flips through a scrapbook put together by his wife, I broke down again. Pixar knows how to pull at your heart strings, but they do it in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or tawdry.

But it’s not just the emotions that the movie evokes that made me love it so much. The characters in the film are so well defined. It never ceases to amaze me that year after year, Pixar creates more believable characters than most live action movies. You feel Carl’s pain, and are in his corner from the outset, even when he uses his gruff exterior to push people away. The little boy Russell uses his exuberance to cover his own pain caused by abandonment issues – that helps to explain why he grows so attached to Kevin, the bird they try to protect. Dug the Dog is the most lovable animated talking animal I have seen in years. And Charles Muntz is just downright creepy. He is essentially a serial killer, and when he threatens Carl and Russell, by rolling human skulls at them and explaining who the people were, it as intense as any thriller aimed at adults. Pixar treats its audience, including kids, with respect by talking down to them or simplifying the issues.

Up is far and away the best movie I have seen so far this year – a guarantee to be on my top ten list at year’s end. It is an exuberant, joyful film brimming with life – both the happiness and the pain that it can bring. In short, Pixar has done it again.

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