Saturday, May 30, 2009


And remarkably, but not surprisingly, Pixar does it again. Just as WALL•E was equally masterful as character study, hard science fiction, and Charlie Chaplin-esque romantic comedy, Up is a sublime mixture of whimsy and wonderment, rollicking adventure, and, for a family animated feature, surprisingly poignant human tragedy. With a small cast of central characters, a streamlined story with a few twists, and plenty of humor and excitement, they've made yet another animated film that far surpasses nearly all of the trite kiddy crap it shares a medium with. As much of a cliché as Pixar-fellatio has become, it's inevitable. Just give in to the goodness.

Unlike WALL•E's two cleanly divided halves, I see Up as having three parts. The first ten or so minutes are a marvel of compact, economic, and emotionally resonant storytelling. With a bare minimum of dialogue, just visuals and music, the film manages to tell and reveal more about our main character Carl's life and why his personality and dreams are exactly what they are than 95% of other films can do with paragraphs of monologues. These ten minutes have a three-act structure all of their own and could almost be a complete short film (although it'd be the most goddamn depressing short film ever).

I'm not spoiling anything the trailers and poster don't to tell that the next part is about Carl tying hundreds of balloons to his house, lifting it into the heavens, and flying off to fulfill a longtime dream of adventure. It all reminded me of the whimsy and creativity of Hayao Miyazaki's films and was quite charming and beautiful. But the real meat of the film occurs when Carl finally lands in South America and the movie turns into an adventure in the finest tradition of Indiana Jones, complete with staggered action set pieces, colorful sidekicks, and a dastardly villain. This is where the film gets just a little more conventional, a lot more jokey, and it's where younger kids will probably find the most joy, but it's still executed with extremely rare panache and moves confidently towards an exciting climax.

Although I do think this is probably the first Pixar movie that isn't upon release the best-animated CGI cartoon ever made (nothing for me can match the desolate and haunting beauty of WALL•E's post-apocalyptic earth or the charming perfection of the robot himself), Up's sweeping vistas of nature are every inch as gorgeous as you'd expect, and Carl's house floating beneath the enormous rainbow of balloons is an instantly iconic image. It's often the little details that count: as days pass in movie time, increasingly coarse white stubble grows on Carl's face and chin. I love those meticulous touches.

Although Carl Fredericksen may not be as cuddly as the robots or fish or living toys in the Pixar films that precede him, in our youth-dominated fiction he is in his own cantankerous way just as exotic a protagonist as any of them - out of the last several hundred movies I've seen, Gran Torino is the only other one I can come up with with a septuagenarian protagonist. Presenting Carl as a lead character along the unusual emotional brutality of his backstory proves that Pixar really has abandoned any and all shackles of feeling like they need to pander to kids. I mean, once you've had a miscarriage in your Disney movie, it all seems to be fair game.

So although just about any other studio announcing that they're dusting off a beloved old property for a third go-round would make me preemptively cringe, the one-two-three punch of Ratatouille-WALL•E-Up has made me a true believer. I can't wait to see what unexpected directions Toy Story 3 takes.

4 Stars out of 5

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