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Thursday, August 23, 2012

Pixargust: Up (2009)

It's amazing. After 24 years of revolutionizing the art of animation with charming short films and hit after hit after hit films, Pixar at last received an honor that very few animation studios can boast about: one of their films had been nominated the Academy Award for Best Picture. It took so long but they made it at last with the studio's tenth film, Up. It's an honor that by this point was only shared with one other animated film: Walt Disney's Beauty and the Beast. After all, WALL•E was a tough act to follow but I think I've ranted about that enough. But I think that everyone, including myself, was pleasantly surprised by this movie. Aside from it's famous accolade, it's also Pixar's third highest grossing film, ginormous amounts of critical acclaim, and managed to walk out with two other Academy Awards: Best Animated Film and Best Score. So just what is it that makes Pixar's tenth wonder (well, ninth if you didn't like Cars...) so great that it almost won Best Picture? Is it the story, the characters, some of the themes, or all of the above? Time to test if the sky really is the limit with today's film, Up.

Carl Fredrickson (Ed Asner) is a man who has lived life. As a young child, he meets a girl named Ellie who shares his passion for adventure and idol, the famous explorer/scientist Charles Muntz. The two marry when they're older and restore the old house they used as a clubhouse and live a very happy life together. It's until Ellie passes away that Carl's life takes a turn for the worst. Now 78, he has to deal with construction going on around his old house and a young scout named Russell (Jordan Nagai) that constantly asks for his assistance even though he means well. After an accident with a construction worker and being forced into a retirement home, Carl is fed up. He remembers his wife's dream: to venture to South America and plant their house on Paradise Falls. And overnight, he gathers enough helium balloons to lift his house from the ground and modifies it for air travel to Paradise Falls. One problem: Russell is on his porch after trying to help him catch a snipe. So Carl is now stuck with him and sees Russell as more of a nuisance than an asset. The two do make it to the falls, but the balloons have lost a lot of air and they land on the wrong side. They figure since they weigh the house down, they can simply walk to the falls. Along the way, they meet a giant prehistoric bird, a dog named Dug (Bob Peterson) that can talk thanks to a special collar, and even Carl's old idol Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) who appears to have snapped trying to look for this bird so he can take it back to the States and redeem his reputation. Carl and Russell now see the danger they're in and try to keep the bird (who Russell names Kevin) away from Muntz and his canine bodyguards with the help of Dug. However, Muntz catches up to them, steals Kevin, and sets Carl's house on fire. Disappointed that Carl just let Kevin go, Russell goes out on his own to save the bird. Carl becomes motivated to help after looking at Ellie's old scrapbook and sees the passage "Thanks for the adventure. Now go have a new one." After a pretty thrilling climax, Carl and Dug save Kevin and Russell, defeat Muntz, but lose the house. Using Muntz's blimp they return Kevin to her family. Yes, Kevin was female this whole time. After getting back home, Carl gives Russell his old badge that his wife once gave him and the two have their own adventures through an unlikely friendship.

If I didn't have such a personal attachment to Ratatouille, then Up would be my second favorite film. The film is hilarious, heartfelt, moving and dramatic all at once. This may sound like it is an issue, and that the film has a problem holding its ground with its tonal structure. But it handles it quite well; splitting the film into quadrants and allowing the themes and plot line to coincide with whatever emotional response the filmmakers are going for. And while there is plenty for young children to enjoy and take from the film, it's really the older audience that will get the biggest reaction from it. There is a lot going on in the film, but it never loses its speed and never loses control of what it wants to say and do. It knows exactly where it wants to be and when to have its fun and serious moments. And where other recent Pixar films have failed (specifically in their lengthy runtimes and frequent need to drag themselves out), Up doesn't. It practically blasts its way through its beginning, all the way up to its ending, with time left to spare. Some may say the film is trying to tell multiple stories, but as the film progresses, it is clear it is telling one story: the tale of a man who never experienced what he wanted the most. The film's best scene is within the first ten minutes as a montage of Carl's life. It's all the film's emotions in only four or five minutes and the relationship he had with Ellie is one of the finest and most heartfelt in film history. I'd make a joke about Twilight here, but the Internet beat me to it.

What's fascinating is, much like WALL•E and Ratatouille before it, is the focus on very few characters. The film builds up Carl's backstory heavily in startlingly moving moments that surprisingly were surprisingly kept rather secretive in the marketing for the film. We know from the very first trailer that Carl is a fairly mean old man, but the film spends a great deal of time to develop him into an emotional wreck of a man because of the death of his wife. Russell is another fun character. He may be a bit chatty, but he does mean well and the film allows for some development and his friendship with Carl is genuine. Dug is probably the funniest Pixar character since Dory. He's a talking dog, but not in a traditional sense. He has this collar that transmits his thoughts as speech through the collar's speakers. So when he speaks, it feels a lot like what your dog may be thinking. And it is funny.

Oh, and there's a giant bird. She's funny too.
The one character that I'm not so much a fan of is actually Muntz. I mean yeah, he's intimidating, he's twisted, and Christopher Plummer always makes a cool villain. It's just that his motives are a bit questionable. I mean think about it: he's trying to earn back his reputation as a scientist by capturing this rare bird. In the meantime, he's had no one but these dogs for company and he's modified a few things to make things more accessible for them. For example, he invented the collar that allows Dug to talk and there's even a scene where he even modifies an airplane where a dog can not only fly it but also shoot weapons. Um... don't you think that has more potential for redemption as a scientist than catching a bird? I mean you could market the hell out of these inventions! Everyone in the world would want to buy them! You could be rich, man! And why stop there? You could modify the same collar for other animals. This could open new gateways for animal communication and intelligence studies! You could go down in history! And you throw it away for... catching a rare bird!?!
Oh, and how do he and Carl look roughly the same age?
 Never explained... aw well, still a damn good movie.
Back to the good stuff! The real magic of the film is in its imagination and adventure. It sticks with being an almost straight adventure picture. It is frequently thrilling and exciting, and lets up only for a few moments at a time. For such an older character, the film really stuns with some of its fantastical ideas. What it lacks in realism it makes up for in fun: something that has been sorely missing from a lot of live action movies for years. It came back for a short while like in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but the focus lately for many films has been based on deeply conflicted, depressing narratives. And while this film does have it's really sad moments, it never wallows in them. It throws the moments at you, and then quickly moves on. Like I said earlier, the tonal shifts do work in Up's favor.

The animation, of course, is great. While Up doesn't break a lot of ground in this field, it still holds Pixar's high standards for animation. The locales are realistic looking and the dog fur is near perfect. For me, watching Carl's facial hair gradually grow in as the story moves along was kind of interesting. The little details and minute perfections have always been key to the Pixar films, including this one, is no different. 

Somehow or another, Pixar always manages to outdo themselves and Up is another all-time high for Pixar. Even if it gets a tad silly, it's still a fun, exciting, clever, and creative adventure film with genuine characters and moments. The animation and designs are wonderful. The characters are memorable and the relationships that they have with each other are intriguing. It may have it's deep, emotional moments (especially with Carl), but it never wallows in them or overbears. It's the perfect amount. I honestly have very few complaints about it and can't recommend it enough. Kids will like the adventures, but folks around my age and older will get more out of it. It's very mature in it's aspect of death and the emotions that stem from it blended perfectly with fun and imagination, which is probably why it got it's infamous nomination. And to my amazement, Pixar managed to get another nomination for Best Picture with their next film. Two in a row? Trust me, that ain't easy. So which film did it again? The answer will come next time.

1 comment:

Pokey said...

CHarles Muntz was the name in an anti-tribute to Charles Mintz, the partner/parent studio Disney's founder's infamous onetime boss who claimed rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. (on behalf of Universal, only for 1) Walter Lantz to recieve him and 2) last few years DISNEY THEMSELV ES to - revenge is sweet) .

Kind of like "Gilligan's Island"/"Brady Bunch" creator/exec.producer Sherwood Schwartz's little subliminal revenge on the legendarily notorious Newton S.Minnow (and what was the Gilligan ship NAMED?:)) including the play on "S.S". initals) , the FCC chairman of the day in the early 1960s,l when he took on task of TV-hater.In short, both the "Gilligan" SS Minnow ship and Pixar/Disney's ,"Up" villlian "Charles Muntz" are named as stabs at personal villians in the executives's life stories (Walt himself and outside Sherwood Schartz.) wo screwed them over.That'll show 'em! Steve J.Carras