Up (United States, 2009)

May 26, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Up Poster

A film like Up makes it clear that Pixar has moved beyond the point where it feels the need to pander to children. Unlike its main animation competitor, Dreamworks, Pixar allows sophisticated themes and ideas to seep into its movies. Everything does not have to be simplified so that a seven-year old can understand what's going on. That's not to say that Pixar films should be seen as family unfriendly art films. Up, for example, includes plenty of jokes that kids will get and several unremarkable action scenes have been included with younger viewers in mind, but there's material of real substance - something increasingly lacking in animated films not tagged with the "Disney" label. Up is not as transcendent as last year's WALL-E, and doesn't rank near the top of Pixar's pantheon of great features, but it's a solid (and in some ways innovative) fantasy adventure that mixes comedy, action, and drama into a satisfying whole that is likely to please all but the most cantankerous curmudgeons.

Up falls under the umbrella of a tried-and-true formula: the old man/young kid "buddy film." This may be, however, the first time this Hollywood staple has been translated effectively into an animated format. As with most movies of this sort, the old guy - 78-year old Carl Fredricksen (voice of Edward Asner) - is a grumpy sort: set in his ways and not welcoming of strangers. The young guy - cub scout Russell (Jordan Nagai) - is full of innocence and wide-eyed optimism. During the course of the film, the two bond and learn from one another although, as is often the case, Carl's schooling strikes a little deeper. The boy who is a nuisance at the beginning has become a valued companion by the end.

From an emotional standpoint, the best thing about Up is the prologue. Running about 12 minutes, it's a masterpiece of economy, and it could stand on its own as a short. It's the story of Carl and Ellie - two misfit kids who find in each other perfect matches. They like the same things and play the same games. Both dream of adventuring far and wide when they grow up. It's only natural for them to spend their lives together, mixing dreams with reality. They marry, face the heartbreak of being unable to have children, and spend roughly seven decades with each other as their best friend. Then Ellie dies and Carl is left alone in a house rich with memories where every floorboard is imbued with Ellie's presence. As backstories go, this matches anything I have seen in any animated motion picture for heft and power. It brings a tear to the eye. Even Miyazaki couldn't have done better.

Once Ellie is gone, Carl decides to fulfill one of their long-time plans: visit Paradise Falls, a virtually uncharted place deep in the wilds of Venezuela. It was there that Carl and Ellie's childhood hero, Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), vanished along with his dirigible during an expedition in the 1930s. To make the trip to South America, Carl decides upon an unconventional means: he ties thousands upon thousands of helium-filled balloons to his house and lifts off. Unfortunately, when the house takes flight, there's an unexpected passenger aboard. Russell, knocking at the front door with the goal of "helping an old person" so he can earn a merit badge, is in the wrong place at the wrong time.

After Carl and Russell reach their goal (but not precisely where they want to be), Up becomes more conventional in its goals and approach. There are chase scenes, talking animals, and rotten-to-the-core villain. These are not bad things (and at least there's no Randy Newman song), but they prevent Up from maintaining the incredibly high level it achieves when it begins. Still, it will surprise me if any other 2009 animated film comes close to this one in terms of cross-generational appeal. It is worth wondering, however, if the movie may be too refined to capture the hearts, minds, and imaginations of children who have become accustomed to the limited pleasures of dumb animation.

Up is being offered in both 2D and 3D versions. I saw it in the former and was unaware of missing anything. Unlike some movies, this one does not the flaunt its 3D features in a way that those watching it in conventional theaters may feel as if they're missing something. The colors - especially those of the balloons and the plumage of a giant bird - are bright and cheerful, and will almost certainly lose something when diminished by the 3D glasses, so there's at least one compelling argument to see this in 2D. Regardless of how it's watched, Up showcases the fine animation that has become Pixar's hallmark. It is not as visionary as what we were presented with in WALL-E, but it puts to shame Dreamworks' Monsters vs. Aliens, where the obsession with 3D resulted in other shortcomings.

The vocal work is top-notch. Instead of seeking out big names to fill the roles, Pixar has found the "right" voices. Edward Asner and Christopher Plummer are not unknowns, but neither are they hot, A-list stars. Their voices are perfect for these parts and viewers are not left with afterimages of their real-life features burned onto those of the animated characters. Asner, as has been noted, sounds a lot like Lionel Barrymore's Scrooge (a role the late actor played annually in a radio play during the 1930s and 1940s) - an appropriate reference given The Christmas Carol transformation of Carl's character - and Plummer has great pipes for suggesting menace.

Up is not my favorite Pixar movie, but I welcome its arrival. I'd rather see dozens of movies like this than one more ugly sequel to Shrek or Madagascar or Ice Age. Pixar views their films as creative and artistic endeavors; Dreamworks and Fox see theirs as products. With Pixar, it's about the movie. With most other animated features, it's about the marketing. There are some great moments in Up, and it may be the funniest thing Pixar has done in a long time, but even the aspects of Up that lack greatness are not bad, and that's worth applauding.

Up (United States, 2009)

Director: Pete Docter, Bob Peterson
Cast: (voices) Edward Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, Bob Peterson, Delroy Lindo, Jerome Ranft
Screenplay: Bob Peterson
Music: Michael Giacchino
U.S. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
Run Time: 1:36
U.S. Release Date: 2009-05-29
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1