Buoyant animated comedy sets the bar mighty high
Directed by Pete Docter
Cast: Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer
After watching its dozen-or-so flawless feature films (from 1995’s Toy Story to 2008’s Wall•E) on what now amount to multiple occasions, I think I’ve finally figured out what makes Pixar Animation Studios so head-and-shoulders above its computer-animating rivals. It’s not that the company’s technical skills are more advanced than Sony Pictures Animation (Open Season, Surf’s Up)—although they certainly are. It’s not that the company’s scripts are more meticulously crafted than those of DreamWorks Animation (Bee Movie, Monsters vs Aliens)—although they certainly are. Watching Pixar’s newest masterwork, the beautiful, buoyant feature UP, it hit me. The element that makes Pixar the studio to envy and emulate is the simple fact that it cares. Everyone at Pixar—from the animators to the writers to the directors—cares deeply about what she or he does. They love every character, they love every frame, and that emotion percolates up through the movie screen. It’s unmistakable. It can’t be faked, and it’s what makes audiences love, love, love Pixar films.
That sincere love is more than evident in UP. The story pitch is one no other studio would even attempt. Not enough Happy Meal potential, too few spin-off toys. But Pixar isn’t interested in all that. Pixar is only interested in making well-crafted, heartfelt movies that will stand the test of time. Can Walt Disney Pictures honestly say the films they were doing before they acquired Pixar fit that bill? Pooh’s Heffalump Movie? The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea? I think not.
UP spins the tale of surly septuagenarian Carl Fredricksen (voiced to perfection by Ed Asner). Carl lives in a ramshackle Victorian house in the middle of a massive construction site. Despite the troubling encroachment of old age and urban progress, Carl refuses to move out and into a retirement home. A lovely, near-wordless preamble (comparable in every way to Wall•E’s silent film-esque start) tells us what we need to know about Carl. As a Depression-era child, he worshipped the globe-hopping exploits of aerial explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). That hero worship led him to his soul mate, equally adventure-minded Ellie. Together they dreamed of sailing away to the South American jungle and visiting a famed waterfall discovered by Mr. Muntz.
Unfortunately, as happens, life got in the way. The couple grew up, got married, bought a house, tried to start a family. Ideas of exotic travel slowly faded into the background. After six or so decades of domestic bliss, Ellie passed away, leaving Carl alone, dejected and without purpose. (Bless you, Pixar, for not shying away from genuine, melancholy emotion.)
Suddenly determined to live out Ellie’s lifelong wish, Carl comes up with the madcap idea of tying a couple thousand party balloons to his house and sailing to South America in search of that elusive waterfall. The visual of Carl and Ellie’s beloved house lifting off its foundations and lofting skyward is a heartswelling moment if there ever was one and sticks around as this film’s most indelible image.
The first kink in Carl’s plan comes, however, when he learns there’s an inadvertent stowaway on his front porch. Chubby Wilderness Scout Russell (newcomer Jordan Nagai) was just looking to add his last scout badge in Helping Senior Citizens. Now he’s stuck on a high-flying adventure to the Southern Hemisphere. Genial misanthrope Carl (he’s more bark than bite) and hapless underage outdoorsman Russell (the kid’s never even been camping) make for a wonderfully mismatched pair of protagonists. The screenplay (courtesy of co-director / Finding Nemo scribe Bob Peterson) even finds time to flesh out little Russell, who’s given a realistic and rather touching reason for his obsessive badge-collecting.
Sticking with its unconventional main characters, the film’s plot drifts along in a number of unexpected directions, eventually landing in adventuresome Jules Verne territory. Throw in lost plateaus, towering airships, a pack of talking dogs and a goofy giant bird named Kevin and you’ve got a movie that feels both unexpected and comfortably old-fashioned.
Like Wall•E, there’s a subtle message underneath all of the far-out trappings. In addition to the obvious entreaty to seek out adventure no matter what your age is a complex battle between the familiar and the exotic. Carl yearns for adventure, but he accomplishes it from the comfort and safety of his own living room. Most of the film finds him literally tied down (via garden hose) to his house, his possessions, his memories. In his single-minded quest to relocate his home to Ellie’s dreamed-about waterfall, Carl misses much of the fantastic story unfolding around him. Worry not, though. For all its psychological, philosophical underpinnings, UP is an extremely funny film. (Bless you, Pixar, once again, for knowing the difference between physical humor and slapstick.)
You’d think the word “masterpiece” would get worn out. But when applied to Pixar, it’s simply not the case. UP is yet another in an unbroken string of charming, touching, utterly wonderful animated comedies perfect for young and old alike. Take a good look, Hollywood. This is what you can accomplish when you actually give a damn.