Saturday, June 13, 2009

Up (2009, Pete Docter and Bob Peterson)

Much has been written about how Pixar has become the surest thing in Hollywood. But with this level of consistency- even Cars, which was a low point only by Pixar’s lofty standards- has come a certain level of shrugging from the critical establishment. “Ho-hum,” we joke. “Another awesome Pixar release. What a shocker.” This is, to say the least, unfair, not least because although the element of surprise has long given way to an almost ironclad reliability, the movies have actually become more diverse in the past few years. The early Pixar releases stuck to a dependable formula- two buddies save the day, usually backed by a ragtag group of wacky misfits- ever since The Incredibles, Pixar’s features have grown increasingly unique. Incredibles’ colorful animation covered for the fact that it was a superior superhero movie, Ratatouille was a French-inflected foodie drama about an unlikely genius, and WALL*E was a cross between a silent film about a single-minded robot and the outer-space epic Jacques Tati never got around to making. And Pixar’s growth continues unabated with their latest, Up, which to these eyes may be their best film yet.

If nothing else, Up would be notable as the first animated film to get me choked up in a decade, when I was similarly affected by The Iron Giant, directed by future Pixar favorite Brad Bird. Even more impressive is that this happened within the first ten minutes of the film, before the story proper has barely begun- we meet the young Carl Fredricksen as a child and see him befriend future wife Ellie through their mutual love for rip-roaring adventure. Then the film cuts to a montage of their lives together- the idealistic early years (marriage, buying the old home that once served as their clubhouse, saving for their dream vacation to South America) followed by the onset of harsher realities (digging into the vacation fund for mundane reasons, going to work, growing old), set to Michael Giacchino’s lovely musical theme. By the time Ellie passes away- leaving Carl sitting alone on the altar of the church where they were first married- Up had worked its magic on me. In retrospect, I liked that directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson weren’t sticking to the traditional rules of family movies, which normally dictate that only the bad guys are allowed to die. But in the moment, all I could do was sit back and let the movie work on me, and marveled that, for once, a montage actually worked the way it should.

When I say that Up is old fashioned, I mean that as a compliment. Make no mistake, Pixar’s wizards have spared no expense to provide cutting-edge animation, even going to far as to cave into the the market’s (and Disney’s) demands to release the film in 3D in select venues. But its most notable virtues are of the old-school variety. As with WALL*E last year, Up tells its story primarily through its visuals and sound effects rather than relying on copious spoken exposition. Of course, it should go without saying that Up is gorgeous to look at- the South American jungle is rendered in a vivid color palette, and even the interiors of the film are filled with wonders great (the cavernous dirigible Carl encounters on his journeys) and small. But the visual style of the film goes beyond simple aesthetic beauty. This is most evident in the film’s use of circles and squares, which can be seen first in the respective character designs of Carl and Ellie. Carl, with his blocky head and lantern jaw, contrasts with the more casual and easygoing Ellie, whose face is rounder and softer. And this pattern continues throughout the film- in Russell (Jordan Nagai), the pudgy Wilderness Survival Scout who becomes Carl’s inadvertent traveling buddy, in the contrast between the friendly dog Dug (the movie’s breakout supporting character) and his more ferocious canine cohorts, even in touches as small as the picture frames in Carl’s home.

Of course, none of this would matter if Up failed in the narrative sense. Thankfully, the film never lapses into the familiar formulas beloved of so many big-budget animated films. As Ebert likes to say, it doesn’t have a plot, but a story- more specifically, a fantastical adventure yarn. One of the advantages of the animation medium is that the filmmakers can apply the long-established laws of “cartoon physics,” in which the rules don’t have to be equivalent to real life just as long as they remain consistent in the film’s world. Up creates a delightful world in which houses can take flight if one uses enough helium balloons, and a young boy can be jostled and whipped around with no lasting damage done (following a particularly perilous adventure, Russell giddily proclaims, “that was cool!”). Naturally, certain rules still apply, but they’re for comic effect as much as anything else, as when Carl faces off against his childhood hero, the adventurer-gone-to-seed Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), and the fight is interrupted by both characters’ back problems. There’s plenty of action in Up, but lots of comedy too, both in between the action scenes and during them as well. The film’s priceless comedy bits are a reminder that Docter also helmed Pixar’s best comedy to date, 2001’s Monsters, Inc. But the humor is never simply silly for silly's sake, but is grounded in the film's world. For example, Dug and friends aren't furry people, but dogs who have been given the gift of human speech, and they're funny not because they talk but because of what they say.

Seeing the movie a second time recently, I realized that many of Up’s effects are achieved through means which usually come off as cheap and manipulative- not only montages and the death of an elderly character, but also such tropes as daddy issues and a child put in danger. The difference here is that they actually work. Perhaps it’s because Docter and Peterson don’t linger on them too long, or maybe it’s because they’re able to tweak them in interesting ways. Either way, the movie works like a charm. Up isn’t a pandering kids’ movie but an honest-to-goodness “family movie” in the classic sense, the kind of full-blooded entertainment that appeals to parents and children alike, similar to such sentimental favorites as Back to the Future. But Up is its own animal, and like ever-loyal Dug, it’s an animal that one looks forward to keeping around for years to come.

Rating: 10 out of 10.

1 comment:

C. Jerry Kutner said...

How interesting and odd that two of the most affecting sequences in films released this year are the backstory montage in Watchmen and the backstory montage in Up.