Pixar consistently delivers, to the point that any review of Up is more a measure of greatness, rather than a critique. Up matches the great craftsmanship and thoughtfulness Pixar is known for, upping the ante with seamless 3D integration and well framed daydreams. There is a heavier tone and theme this time around, and kids may wonder why their parents are crying, not understanding the gravity of time and lost paths. Emotional response is where the film really achieves magic, provoking a wistful longing for youth and dashed hopes.
It is interesting to note that Pixar films are the closest equivalent to the animation masterpieces Disney used to produce (the last one was The Lion King, if I remember correctly). When Disney started releasing straight to DVD classics like Aladdin 4: Iago’s Magical Feather, it became clear that the days of animation pioneering were well behind us. Pixar picked up the ball though, and we can once again look forward to kids movies that are works of art in addition to being entertaining.
Additionally, while classic Disney animation usually featured female protagonists and feminine conflicts, Pixar deals only with male anxieties. Maybe this is a reflection of the all male staff who founded the company, but whatever the reason, it’s a tectonic shift in the focus of kid’s entertainment. Previous films dealt with middle age problems of modern man (Wall-E – fright of pregnancy and the responsibility of caring for life, Finding Nemo – single dad bearing the weight and fears of a child, The Incredibles – midlife crisis, and the list goes on). Up picks up the baton, it tackles the loss of dreams when your wife and life drags you down.
Up positively screams its thematic concern in our face, Carl Fredricksen is literally tied and weighed down by his house trying to reach his ultimate destination, linked by surrogate son Russell. I may be getting ahead of myself, as the first act is a story all in itself. Pixar aims to get the tears flowing immediately in a near perfect montage from childhood, through marriage, and onto death. The tight control and tempo of Carl and wife Ellie as they struggle for their dreams, blocked by the commitments of life, are pure storytelling (I can’t help wonder if Carl may have had more luck buying tickets to South America if he had pursued a more profitable career than filling balloons at the zoo, but I digress). It’s also pure emotional expression, and liable to break your heart.
As Fredrickson scoffs at America’s ideas about what old peoples’ lives should be, he flies his house to his dream. The balloons are quite a sight, and I pity the poor animator who came up with the program that renders them. Russell provides the counterweight to Fredricksen’s old age and grumpiness, and comic relief as well. Animal costars are spot on as well, including true to life dog Dug, and tropical bird Kevin. The villain is Muntz, aged explorer trying to prove himself, but he only stands out in his portrayal of accurate old people behavior.
Muntz is meant to be the other side of Carl’s coin, following his dreams in life and coming up empty handed, Carl not following his dreams and coming up fulfilled. The pack of dogs that serve as Muntz’s henchman aren’t the best bad guys ever, but worth some laughs. Some will agree with the concept of a simple life of simple love with that one special person over achievement, some people won’t. Muntz’s dream is a living specimen of the tropical bird (namely Kevin), a skeleton in his old trophy room, his dreams are portrayed as near worthless. Carl’s dream is also a skeleton, but he got a lifetime of memories of reading books and driving around to show for it (Pixar implies Ellie’s death in the opening scene, but makes a calculated decision not to show the coffin or gravesite, guess some things are just too much for parents to explain).
The art of the picture is a piece of work too, bringing to mind classic Indiana Jones sets and fun tropical environments. The prevalence of fluffy clouds brings to mind thoughts of dreams and of death. The power of a cloud in a blue sky is powerful in the human mind, from the popular conception of heaven as a cloud land, to the life and shape the imagination can lend to it. A particularly poignant scene of Carl’s house sinking into the ether is remarkable. The 3D was good, but I have to say that Coraline is still the benchmark in the format.
In the end, Carl’s answer is to now spend his life enriching Russell’s life, which has an unclear back story. First he has a stepmom telling him to leave his dad alone, then his dad is a camping expert who took him to get ice cream, but is now either gone or dead, and in the end we see his single mother. Maybe Pixar wanted enough sad situations available so that any kid without a nuclear family arrangement can relate. Alls well that ends well I guess. Unfortunately, these days an older man (a complete stranger, mind you) showing interest in the life of a young boy would not be viewed in such an innocent light, whether he drives around in a giant Zeppelin or not.