by Alex Chrisope
The brilliant run of films produced by the Pixar-Disney partnership has proven to be quite the double-edged sword. The computer animation studio has yet to release a truly bad movie; it’s just that when they don’t have one that immediately qualifies for the short-list for Best Animated Feature Ever (Toy Story, Finding Nemo, WALL-E) or that is similarly innovative (a talky drama about a French rat chef – for kids!), there’s a disappointment that can besmirch an otherwise fine work. So it is with Pixar’s tenth feature, Up.
Up opens strongly, displaying the same trust in the viewer’s intelligence seen throughout WALL-E, with a hilarious newsreel about dashing explorer Charles Muntz (voiced by a well-disguised Christopher Plummer). Muntz has discovered Paradise Falls, an idyllic canyon in South America, and Muntz’s adventure captivates a shy boy named Carl. Subbing his own blue balloon for Muntz’s gargantuan dirigible, Carl has his own made-up adventures when he stumbles on someone just as obsessed as he is – an aggressively precocious redhead named Ellie. The yin to Carl’s cautious yang, the two become fast friends, promising to each other that one day they both will make it to Paradise Falls. In a beautiful montage without dialogue, Carl and audience alike fall for her; but as Carl and Ellie get married and grow old together, they never quite make it to South America. When Ellie passes, it doesn’t have the same stomach-turning shock as Bambi’s or Nemo’s respective mothers, but it still leaves one near tears.
With city developers closing in on Carl’s lifelong abode, the old man (now voiced by Ed Asner) decides to engage in one last act of defiance, fitting his little house with a shitload of helium balloons and flying away before the bastards can kick him out. This liftoff sequence is the most sublimely ridiculous moment in Pixar’s modest history, especially paired with the brutal emotional realism of the preceding minutes (which featuring, disturbingly, Pixar’s first instance of blood*, when Carl bashes a construction worker with his walker); but it’s just so spectacularly staged that I wasn’t too bothered. Carl sets out for Paradise Falls – but he has a stowaway, a pudgy Japanese-American Wilderness Scout named Russell (Jordan Nagai) who’s main character trait is constantly seeking approval from Carl.
Director Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.) unfortunately can’t sustain the power of the first act, and the story gets pretty dodgy in South America before hurtling towards a climax of well-staged but sturdy cliches. Luckily the second half of Up has the greatest portrayal of dogs in the history of cinema. Paradise Falls is apparently populated with highly-trained canines wearing translators, which not only finally provide a satisfying explanation for the phenomenon of the cartoon talking dog but also deliver the funniest gags in the whole film. The most important dog is a golden retriever named Dug, who has the boundless energy and earnestness of his breed; but like all the other dogs, his translating collar’s speech has the awkward literalness of plugging a giant chunk of English into a free online translator – think Liz Lemon’s “I want to go to there” from 30 Rock. The writers clearly had a ball tweaking all of the canine dialogue and must be dog lovers themselves, since they absolutely nail the limited emotional spectrum of the average pet dog.
It seems redundant at this point to praise the visual mastery of a Pixar film, but there are shots and images in Up that have the arresting quality of a great painting. One of these moments neatly sums up the theme of the film: it’s the boring, routine moments in life that should be cherished, not the long-deferred dream that is often shallow and deceptive when brought to life. Another, in which a ominous storm front dwarfs Carl’s little house, had me making a mental note to one day, when I have grandchildren, schedule a double-feature of The Wizard of Oz and Up. Young children likely won’t grasp all the emotions with which Carl grapples, but the message won’t be lost on them. And if they don’t already have one, they’ll be begging to get a dog. A talking one, hopefully.
*Edit: Supposedly Mr. Incredible bleeds a tad in The Incredibles, but that film is so firmly established in the comic-book superhero milieu that it didn’t register. So Up is the first Pixar film to show a real person bleeding, I guess.