I wish the gang at Pixar ran Hollywood.
Seriously, they've consistently turned out decent films aimed at all ages. They avoid serving up remakes, reboots, and rehashes of well-worn properties. Their executives talk about the importance of developing characters and stories, and worrying about marketing afterward.
Yet still they produce hits. Go figure.
In the summer of 2009, they served Up, about a lonely, grumpy old man who assaults a construction worker, and a lonely, garrulous kid who wants to earn a merit badge. Using helium balloons, an old house, and a gps they find pulp adventures in a lost world. Sheesh, how come Hollywood hasn't done that one before?
Up has thrills and danger, but it doesn't consist entirely of thrills and danger. And the fate of the world isn't at stake. (Seriously, why does the fate of the world always have to be at stake in American adventure/fantasy movies?) The film also serves up some very funny jokes. It even scores a few of those pop-culture allusions so popular in hip movies and television shows. However, it doesn't clutter them into every available space. The writers (Pixar has writers, not creatives, you can tell) give the characters room to develop and breathe and be human.
The easy approach, the predictable approach, would be to show us a curmudgeon and have the little kid finally evoke his humanity. All right-- Up does that, but not in the expected way. When we meet Carl, he's an adventurous, somewhat nerdy kid who dreams of being an explorer. He meets a like-minded little girl. We follow their life together, to the point of her death, decades later, and then we meet the curmudgeon, the old man who has outlived his wife and (he imagines) their dreams and just wants the twenty-first century to leave him alone. He’s flawed, old, lonely, and sometimes very angry.
Then, faced with a dark, difficult turn of events, he waves the world good-bye, in a manner only possible in fantasy. And it’s good fantasy. The old man does what we might do in the same situation, if reality allowed it to happen.
Of course, it doesn't happen easily. Russell, an eager, nerdy
Boy Scout Wilderness Scout gets stuck along for the ride. Their bond grows, predictably but plausibly, as they experience their shared adventures. The lost valley that awaits them contains the answers to some mysteries, too—- but not necessarily the answers they expected.
Pixar's animators have given careful attention to detail. The old house has been filled with the detritus of lived lives. It's the sort of place a couple shared for a lifetime, a place Carl wouldn't want to leave, his refuge from a world that kept on going after his beloved Ellie died, and kept going in ways he doesn't entirely like. You sympathize with the old guy. Even the kids in the audience get him. He's grandpa, and grandpa's having a rough time just now.
Ed Asner imbues Carl with crotchety life, and we become invested in his character's journey, comedic and fantastic though it may be. Newcomer Jordan Nagai, meanwhile, captures perfectly that annoyingly eager kid we all know. The talking dog pack also includes some particularly amusing uses of voice, and Christopher Plummer—well, you'll have to see and hear that performance for yourself. He may not be as fully developed, but he has animated presence and a convincing backstory and the adults, Carl-like, will see where this is heading before the kids do.
Despite realistic and serious undertones, Up does not lack for whimsy or the fantastic-- wild adventure, talking dogs, and the bizarre beast of Paradise Falls. The film uses the absurdities and distortions of animation to advantage, too, for example, when Russell climbs over Carl's time-worn face.
The 3-D effects enhance the experience, but are not necessary. My only complaint here is that they do not consistently work so well with quick movement—-and they will leave some viewers nauseous.
The story, however, will not.
Up tells us that we can pursue our dreams, but it may take us years or even decades to see them realized. It will cost us. And some of them won't come true. Others will, but not as we imagine. Others will leave us disillusioned. And some can be downright corrupting.
And some may be wonderful.
Pixar understands what it means to make a children's film that the adults will enjoy. And it doesn't mean having the adult characters play "keys," as in Ron Howard's desecration of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Here, adult means including layers and revelations and jokes that transcend the kiddie level of comprehension, without interfering with the kids' enjoyment of the events. It means the film addresses real themes, not forced platitudes. We have here a fun fantasy filled with ideas about family, relationships, responsibilities, hopes, dreams, disillusionment, and deciding what's important. As in Wall-E, modern technology has been used in the service of a story that takes a crotchety look at a few things that modern society has spectacularly wrong.
Pixar, arguably, has made funnier films. I don't know, however, if they have made a better film.
Directors: Pete Docter,
Writer: Bob Peterson
Ed Asner as Carl Fredericksen
Jordan Nagai as Russell
Christopher Plummer as Charles Muntz
Bob Peterson as Dug and Alpha
Elie Docter as Ellie
Jeremy Leary as Young Carl
John Ratzenberger as Construction Foreman Tom
Not to be confused with the Russ Meyer film of the same name.