Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

Jun 21, 2009

Up (2009)

By Devan Scott

Nobody knew it at the time, but when Pixar’s Toy Story came out in 1995, it heralded the beginning of a new golden age for animation. Not since Disney’s stellar run of animated classics during the 1930s and 40s has a single production company had such an incredible winning streak of animated features. In just fourteen years, Pixar has produced no less than ten animated films, nine of which I wouldn’t hesitate to label as classics of the genre. Pixar’s dominance in the realm of computer-generated animation is totally unprecedented. No other company comes close; in fact, I challenge anyone to name a single computer-animated film not produced by Pixar that could be called a ‘classic’. It can’t be done.

Back in the earlier days of the company, it always came as a surprise when they produced yet another stunning film. Now, nearly a decade and a half on, it’s practically a foregone conclusion. This is why it should come as no surprise to report that Up is up to Pixar’s usual incredibly high standard. What might come as a surprise, however, is the fact that Up greatly exceeds this standard. It’s an incredibly enjoyable, kinetic adventure story that still manages to be emotionally devastating at points. It’s got love, loss, heartbreak, and catharsis, yet it features talking dogs piloting biplanes. This is an animated masterpiece that ranks right up with such works as Pinnochio, Beauty and the Beast, Fantastia, and Toy Story as one of the all-time pinnacles of the genre. It’s that good.

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At their peak, Disney almost invariably based their fantastical worlds and stories on those of fairy tales. Pixar takes a different route; they take reality and distort it. As a result, their films have always had a rather dreamlike quality. The world they take place in is recognizable as ours, only slightly warped. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Up; the film features liberal use of cartoon physics, the setting and plot verge on the surreal.

Surreal though the plot may be, it doesn’t break from the Pixar tradition of being potent in its simplicity. It concerns Carl Fredrickson, an elderly man embittered by the recent loss of his wife to old age. After an altercation with a city worker, he’s declared a menace to society and forced to leave his beloved house for a retirement home. The night before moving out, Carl, an adventure-lover, decides to finally fulfill his childhood dream: travelling to Paradise Falls, an uncharted bit of wilderness in South America. To this end, he chooses a rather unconventional means; he attaches thousands of helium-filled balloons to his house, turning it into an airship. However, due to a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he takes on an accidental passenger in Russell, a young ‘Wilderness Explorer’ hoping to earn a merit badge. This kicks off a set of adventures in which they encounter such oddities as enormous flightless birds and talking dogs.

In practically any other hands, a character like Russell – a lively, overbearing young child – would likely become an immensely annoying character. In screenwriter Bob Peterson’s hands, however, he quickly becomes a wonderfully endearing, human character. Instead of being simply comic relief or a plot device to enable Carl to regain his youthful idealism, he’s a well-rounded character who never strays too far into comic relief or sentimentality. In fact, every character in this film feels well-written. When situations arise that characters must react to, their reactions always carry the air of truthfulness – we never feel as if a character’s being manipulated by some writer who’s struggling to further the plot. Even the talking dogs feel like they act like any dog would in real life if given the ability to verbalize.

The gist of all this is that while Up is actually on the sillier, lighter side of Pixar’s output, it feels as emotionally true as any serious film. During the first and last acts of the picture, there are a number of incredibly affecting, almost heartbreaking moments. The middle act features the bulk of the comedy and lighter material, and while it’s still compelling, it’s not quite as captivating as the sections directly preceding and succeeding it. This, however, feels like less of a shortcoming and more of a necessary evil, although the second act could have done with a couple of trimmed scenes.

This, however, feels like an incredibly minor complaint when faced with just how good the film is when it’s at its best. In this regard, the first ten minutes have to be singled out; in an almost completely wordless set of scenes, we see how Carl and his wife, Ellie, met as kids, grow up together, fall in love, spend their later years together, and are tragically separated by death. It does in ten minutes what lesser films spend hours to accomplish, and, save for one incredible third-act scene, it’s Up’s dramatic highpoint. Not since the last moments of Monsters, Inc has Pixar evoked emotion this well.

It should be noted that at this point, the quality of Pixar’s animation seems to have plateaued. Instead of making great leaps with every new film, they seem to be more focused on polishing things. The film’s characters and environments don’t look noticeably more detailed than in, say, Ratatouille. What has improved, however, is how natural they feel. Even as recently as The Incredibles, Pixar’s human characters have felt a bit stiff and artificial. Not so in Up. Gone are the semi-robotic movements and facial expressions present in practically every human in every computer-animated film made so far. This naturalism goes a long way towards making the characters more believably emotive.

The quality of Pixar’s storytelling, on the other hand, has never really made great leaps. Never a company to experiment greatly, they’ve instead taken small steps with each film, introducing a few new elements each time around to keep things fresh. And while it would be a treat to see them go in some sort of radical new direction, it’s tough to argue with a company that’s released such consistently great mainstream work. Up is the latest example of that, and yet another testament to just how skilled Pixar is at telling a great story. And, again, I find myself looking forward to whatever they decide to do next.

So, uh, see it.

An addendum: I’ve seen Up twice: Once in 3D and once in 2D. Please, do yourself a favor and see it in 2D. Yes, things pop out of the screen in 3D. Yes, it looks sort of cool for about fifteen minutes. However, the tradeoff is that you’ve got to wear a pair of uncomfortable, dark glasses, washing out all of the vibrant colours and considerably dimming the screen. I found that this practically ruined the darker scenes, as I couldn’t even make out the action due to how dark the glasses made it. In fact, the 3D effects took me out of the picture on multiple occasions. The effects are supposed to improve immersion in the film; instead, they were exceptionally distracting and felt artificial. It never even felt as if anything was truly jumping out at me or had any real depth; the fact that a standard theater screen only partially covers one’s field of view ensured that. So, is it worth three dollars and two hours of eye strain in exchange for the movie looking like a pop-up book? No. See it in 2D.


Laurel said...

I agree...just saw it and was absolutely moved and at the same time "tickled pink"!!! What a fun experience!
Laurel Ross

Anonymous said...

Great review. Don't you guys ever watch movies that you do not like?

¬Will Ross said...

Next review is for a movie we're giving a score of zero.

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