[National Review Online; May 29, 2009]
I knew Up was one of those rare first-rate movies when I found myself really yearning to see it for a second time. Actually, that wouldn’t have been so unusual, except that I was still sitting in the theater and had only gotten through 20 minutes of seeing it for the first time. It’s that good.
And that in itself isn’t so unusual, considering that this is a film from Pixar Studios, whose previous films (Wall-E, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc., Toy Story) have been not only excellent, but also original. Leave it to the other animation studios to crank out films where bland themes (like “Follow Your Dreams”) provide vehicles for pop-culture references and gross-out jokes. In recent years, Pixar gave us a robot cleaning up an abandoned planet Earth, a rat who wants to be a French chef, superheroes chafing under forced retirement, and the courageous monsters who must inhabit children’s closets. Imagination still exists, in some quarters.
The central image of Up is of an elderly man towing a house. He’s pulling it along by means of a garden hose connected to a low faucet, and the building is held aloft by masses of helium balloons, though it sinks a little lower every day. The man is crossing a flat, dark-gray landscape interrupted by pillars of rocks stacked in inscrutable patterns. (You can say, “Yeah, yeah, the old ‘man-towing-a-house’ story,” but I promise this one’s different.)
The house, you see, is a Valentine. Seventy years before, Carl Frederickson met his bride, Ellie, in this house. At the time it was broken-down and abandoned, but when they married they bought it and fixed it up. From childhood Carl and Ellie had cherished a dream of emulating their hero, intrepid explorer Charles Muntz, and the whimsical expression of this dream was a childish crayon sketch of their home at the edge of South America’s Paradise Falls. (The film’s crew journeyed to Venezuela’s Tabletop Mountains for inspiration.) Now Ellie has died, every other structure around the home has been bulldozed, and since the couple was childless, Carl’s life seems pointless and empty. So he’s going to put that house at the edge of Paradise Falls, if — as he says, and as seems likely — “it kills me.”
But that isn’t what kids are going to like, or even notice, about this movie. For them, it’s mostly about Dug the talking dog, and Russell, Carl’s chubby eight-year-old sidekick, and Kevin, a glorious, 13-foot-tall iridescent bird. This is a really hilarious movie, and there are plenty of chases and action sequences, too (this is only the second Pixar film to have a PG rating, in this case for “peril”). But, as in other Pixar films, there is an intriguing theme underneath all the fun; here, as before, the theme has to do with the goodness of marriage and family life, and the self-sacrificing love a parent (or parent-figure) has for a child.
In a way, Up is a variation on It’s a Wonderful Life. Carl regrets that he was never able to bring Ellie to Paradise Falls, but he comes to see that their ordinary hometown life was a sweet and significant adventure in itself, one that gave Ellie joy. Russell finds that the wilderness is “more wild” than he expected, and “not like they say in books,” and that what he misses is eating ice cream and counting cars with his dad: “It might sound boring, but I think the boring stuff is what I remember most.”
We also see that someone who looks like a grumpy old man can be instead an interesting old man, courageous and inventive. He’s not “grumpy” on general principles, but for the very good reason that he has lost the love of his life. We see that there is such a thing as love for a lifetime, and that love between people who have grown old together is beautiful. And we see Carl register it as a real tragedy when he learns that Russell’s dad has gone on to a new wife, one who tells Russell “not to phone and bug him so much.”
Up is remarkable for other reasons: It is the first animated film to open the Cannes Film Festival, and the first 3-D movie from Pixar. But the effects are used as artistic elements to support the story, rather than just calling attention to themselves. For example, 3-D is used to shorten the perspective and induce a confined feeling as we see Carl spending lonely days in the house after Ellie has gone. In a typically clever shot, Carl chugs slowly across the screen on his stair-glide, to the sultry strains of the “Havanaise” from “Carmen.”
The most eye-popping use of 3-D actually comes in the Disney and Pixar logos, before the movie itself begins. After the logos fade, we see something that looks familiar: rows of heads before us in a theater, watching a movie. That film turns out to be a 1930s-era newsreel of the dashing explorer Charles Muntz, and we step into the story as we see Carl as a child, watching along with us. Pretty nifty.
The one thing I disliked was that, once the characters are all in place, the film becomes simply a series of action sequences. (I had the same criticism of Finding Nemo.) It’s as if the plot pauses, and we just keep re-running the loop of danger, chase, battle, escape, in different settings. We don’t learn anything new about the characters, because the last chase sequence already demonstrated that they are either courageous (good guys) or nefarious (bad guys). For me, this phase of the movie just drags, though of course for many audience members the action scenes will be the best part.
The filmmakers do deserve kudos for making the extra effort of rendering such scenes true-to-life in terms of weight, texture, and impact; it isn’t simply as big and loud as possible. This goes for the whole film. You’ve probably never seen a house held up by helium balloons, but it just feels right. You will believe a house can fly. The structure creaks and leans the way you think it would, and when Carl cuts a few balloon strings to lower it a bit, they ping the way they ought to. Early on the house sails into a lightning storm, and it feels like the real thing (this might be the scariest part of the film for little ones).
I was also impressed that, having given us the house as a symbol of Carl and Ellie’s love, the filmmakers allow it to be bashed and damaged on its dangerous journey. The cost of this adventure is real, but it’s worth it — a lesson Russell, along with all the kids watching, will find useful when he himself is 78.