Sunday, May 31, 2009

Up - ***1/2 (2009)

What a delightful, ambitious, sweet and good-natured undertaking this is! Pixar’s “Up,” the studio’s tenth feature-length endeavor and first to be filmed in 3D, opens on a note of human subtlety that goes beyond what we expect of a cartoon and grows into what may very well be the most touching human drama of the year. We are used to seeing many things from the minds of this high-functioning production company, ranging from charming shorts to brilliant fully-realized feature films, but as always you can never really know what is hidden in that big hat of tricks. Ten films later, and after great achievements like “Wall-E,” “Finding Nemo” and “The Incredibles,” we now realize that we are not simply dealing with animators but visionaries, who treat their craft with all the care and precision of a director straight out of Hollywood’s golden age.

“Up” continues the tradition. A vibrant, imaginative menagerie of quirky adventure, good-natured storytelling and whimsical characterizations, the movie concocts an approach that opens doors for all sorts of creative whims to flourish from. It tells the tale of Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner), who was the kind of kid that stared on in awe and the simplest things because the world seemed so much bigger than it really was. He looks on in a sense of wonderment at old news reels featuring his hero Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), an adventurer who discovered a world of exotic wildlife in the heart of South America and has vowed to never return until he can bring the wildlife home and prove to the general public that his discoveries are not, contrary to media speculation, fabricated. It is under the trance of this famed adventurer that Carl meets Ellie, a girl with her own enthusiasm for exploration, who vows to one day have her clubhouse sit atop the Cliffside overlooking Paradise Falls in said South American region so she can embark on equally-enthralling adventures. They bond over their idolization of Muntz, who serves as a platform not just for their friendship, but also for a courtship that fills the film’s prologue with a series of touching, dialogue-free sequences that chronicle their lives together.

In present day, Ellie has passed on, Carl lives alone in the house they shared a life in, and land developers are developing his neighborhood into a thriving commercial real estate venture, with the old man’s house being the final hold-out. Unfortunately, a court summons on part of the developer forces Carl to abandon the only home he knows and spend the rest of his days in a retirement home – a situation that he simply refuses to see himself in. What is a former balloon salesman to do, then? Simple: fill up thousands of balloons with helium, tie them to the fireplace and sit back while the house is carried up, up and away; or rather, up and away to South America, just as he and his wife had dreamed of doing in their youth.

Carl’s trip isn’t taken alone, either. A wide-eyed, cheery wilderness explorer scout named Russell (Jordan Nagai) stows away below his house just as it is elevated, perhaps for no authentic reason other than to supply the plot with a youngster that kids in the audience can identify with. He is one of the more memorable children in recent Disney animation, at least; pudgy-cheeked and eager to take in the excitement around him without intentionally looking for it, his presence acts as the perfect counter-balance to the stone-faced and na├»ve determination of his companion. For him, going to Paradise Falls is no longer about adventure, but rather about seeking closure to a life-long dream that couldn’t be completed while his wife was alive. Needless to say, the movie takes him on necessary detours.

That all of this is conveyed with such a dazzling array of color and ambition certainly assists in the payoff. The movie was directed by Pete Docter, who was also at the helm of the vivid “Monsters, Inc.”, and here he supplies Bob Peterson’s ambitious screenplay with a palate of bright and lush hues that pop out so distinctively, they almost don’t need the 3D technology. Moreover, the movie seems framed as if it were live action, staged in such a manner that would warrant great praise for effective cinematography had it been devised in live action. Consider a sequence involving Carl’s house engaged in a mid-air dogfight with a giant silver airship: not only is it executed with grand flair and craftsmanship, parts actually feel inspired by some of the better aviation movies of vintage Hollywood, including William Wellman’s “Wings” and Howard Hughes’ “Hell’s Angels.” Likewise, the interiors of the giant airship seem less like backgrounds and more like walks through those old dining halls crowded with important people, except that everyone has gone home.

What surprised me most about “Up,” perhaps as both a film reviewer and a movie-goer, is that I found myself feeling like a kid the entire time I was absorbing it, being completely caught up in the story, engaged by the characters and hopeful about the outcome without consciously thinking about anything else outside my own immediate joy. Animation – or rather, genuinely great animation – has the ability to offer not just escape but momentary absolution; it offers us the chance to leave all our cares and concerns in the shadows of a movie theater, exchanging them with all things whimsical, comical, innocent and exciting, and in many cases even frightening or horrific. It is within those qualities that the greatest lessons about life are learned, and though “Up” is not quite in the class of the Disney greats like “Pinocchio” or “Beauty and the Beast,” it is arguably the first of the Pixar films to genuinely grasp the formula of success behind the vintage animate feature. It is also, in its own right, one of the studio’s finest and sweetest endeavors thus far. I left the theater grinning from ear to ear.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Animated (US); 2009; Rated PG for some peril and action; Running Time: 98 Minutes

Ed Asner: Carl Fredricksen
Christopher Plummer: Charles Muntz
Jordan Nagai: Russell
Bob Peterson: Dug, Alpha
Delroy Lindo: Beta

Produced by John Lasseter and Jonas Rivera; Directed by Pete Docter; Written by Bob Peterson

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