In their 14 year history, Pixar have displayed an uncanny knack for turning whatever they touch into gold. Almost every one of their previous nine releases has been met with a stack of academy nominations, universal critical acclaim and a mountain of box office dollars. That Cars (2006) is seen as the ‘weak’ link demonstrates how high the bar is set when we talk about a Pixar film. In UP they don’t just repeat this feat, experiment with digital 3D and pull off two unusual leads in a grumpy old man and a tubby boy scout so endearingly, they clear the bar previously set by themselves by miles. UP is Pixar’s most mature, heartwarming and greatest achievement in film to date.
We meet Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner) as a wide eyed young boy watching an old black & whilte b-roll of his hero, the aviator-explorer Charles Muntz. A forced disappearance amidst accusations of fraud to nothing to diminish Carl’s fascination with his hero and soon this brings him together with a tomboy named Ellie who gleefully shows him her spirit of adventure. What follows over the next few minutes is a montage of Carl & Ellie’s life together, from playful daydreaming, tragedy and dreams of adventure that could never quite be fulfilled. It is easily the most heart-wrenching, poignant and beautifully paced sequence Pixar have ever done leaving not a dry eye in the house.
Now a widower, Carl is faced with eviction. His martial home surrounded by towering skyscrapers in a scene reminiscent of the house from Batteries Not Included. Defiant to the end, the construction companies have got their way but Carl has other ideas. In a magical scene, Fredricksen’s life as a balloon seller is put to good use as with the help of thousands of helium filled balloons, he and his house take off to the skies in search of Paradise Falls, the place that occupied his and Ellie’s lifelong dreams which they could never go to.
Along for the ride however, is 8 yr old ‘Wilderness Explorer’ Russel (Jordon Nagai). Originally sent on a wild goose-chase by Carl, his perseverance in attempting to achieve his “Assisting the Elderly” badge sees him trapped on the front porch as Carl takes off. Unwitting travel partners they may be but Russell’s GPS sees them arrive in sight of Paradise falls in South America after a violent storm.
It’s as this point the plot gets a little more wacky. It would be too easy, after all, for Carl to be able to set down his house in the very spot his late wife visualized by the Falls and put his feet up to call it a day. Instead Carl and Russel’s journey is colored by a rare flightless bird, a surprise from his past and a pack of dogs fitted with collars that renders them able to voice their thoughts. Although there are plenty of laughs up to this point, it is the dogs who provide much of the comic relief in the second half of the film, especially the gloriously innocent and dopey Dug.
Initially, having developed the two human characters so masterfully in the first hour it might be a little jarring to see Pixar revert to “talking animals” later in the film but whilst there might be a some compromise here to keep younger audiences entertained, it is executed with such humor and panache that it is quickly forgotten amongst the laughs.
Though it doesn’t quite hit the emotional heights of it’s opening, UP still remembers that ultimately it is a film about love, mortality and dreams not fulfilled. Amongst the later zaniness there are still some genuinely touching moments and whilst the ending is notably upbeat, the subtler conclusion to Russell’s side-story is no less moving.
UP also marks Pixar’s first serious attempt at digital 3D which is the way I watched it and they should be commended in their restraint and tact in utilizing the technology. As a film, it is beautiful and moving in any dimension. There are no gimmicks or “popping out effects” here. Similar to Coraline however, the added depth is used selectively to draw you into the world when required. It is hard to say whether I would have found the film quite so powerful in it’s tender moments without it but what I do know is that in my opinion it is the most accomplished 90 minutes Pixar have put to film and one of the most affecting I have seen this year. Without hesitation, if there is warmth in your heart; you should go and see it.
(****MILD SPOILERS****) Personally (and I hope I'm not the only one)I thought it could've it done with less talking animals. The first half hour or so of this, similarly with Wall-E, was absolute cinematic gold - masterful story telling without the need for any dialogue whatsoever, then suddenly there's a million comedy critters knocking about. I thought the film had lost it's way slightly and wasn't quite sure which way to head when the flying house eventually touches down, and the arrival of the giant bird and subsequent comedy talking dogs almost detracted from the brilliance of the opening. It managed to rally somewhat as it progressed and there will still flashes of brilliance, particularly as the old man gazed at pictures of his wife, or dragged his floating house along silhouetted against the sunset. I feel a little like I'm taking a chisel to Michaelangelo's David a little here, but it's almost as if Pixar are constrained by an assumption that 'CG animated films are for kids' and thus must contain amusing talking creatures. If they ever just make a film without having to cater for the child audience I think it'd be an absolute masterpiece. But this was very very very good ;0)