Monday, June 15, 2009

Movie Review - Up!

It's been 14 years since we were first introduced to the wonderful Pixar Studios' production of "Toy Story". I remember seeing that movie and thinking that animated movies would never be the same. I also remember thinking that "Toy Story" would be tough to top. I was so naive.

Since that summer of 1995, Pixar has treated us with spectacular movie experiences just about every year or two. This is a production company that has never known failure. Ever. Every movie they have thrown up onto the big screen has been wildly successful, and that is no accident. The biggest thing Pixar movies have going for them is the sheer breadth of their appeal. The movies, from Toy Story on, have made a concerted effort to not target any specific group; age, ethnic or otherwise. These movies are, quite literally, for everyone from age 3 to 103. Every single production gives you something to enjoy, no matter your demographic. The visuals appeal to both very young and very old alike... the stories are most often both child-like in their innocence, yet mature in their message. The characters are well developed and likable... even the villains. They are cast well, and the animators have an uncanny knack for representing accuracy in delivery: the characters so often just look like the actors playing them even if they don't really look like them. For example, Mr. Incredible looks nothing like Craig T. Nelson, and yet he so much does... it's an uncanny talent that is unique in animated films to Pixar movies, as far as I am concerned.

However, despite all the praise and acclaim I've just heaped upon the folks at Pixar, I've also noticed another peculiar phenomenon concerning their movies. For whatever reason, immediately following "Toy Story 2", each time I would hear of an upcoming Pixar release, I would treat it with relative disinterest. I had loved every movie they had produced up to that point, but the new movies, as they would be teased, just never seemed to capture my attention. Even the wonderful "Finding Nemo", which I think is the high-water mark for Pixar movies to date, was greeted with a barely registering "Eh..." when I first saw the trailer. And that stayed with me right up until the release of the movie. I was blown away when I saw "Nemo", of course. And that movie served to solidify Pixar movies as "must-see" movie events, for me anyhow.

And yet, when "The Incredibles" was released, again I was struck with a weird sense of disinterest. I saw it and loved it, too. The same pattern has continued with each subsequent release up to "Ratatouille". Once I saw that movie, I vowed that whatever it was inside me that wanted to undersell Pixar movies, I was going to bury it deep down and be damn-well excited when the next movie came out. I was wary with "Wall-E", but remained excited... and I was rewarded with one of the best movie's I've seen in years.

So along came the teasers for the latest Pixar production: "Up". And I have to admit... based on the title and the few teasers and trailers I saw, I was once again, struck with a sense of being underwhelmed. This movie just looked boring to me. Clearly I had learned nothing from the prior success of Pixar's films. Pixar has made a habit of being understated with the promotion of its movies, and I think it has served to make the experience all that much more enjoyable when you see them. The same is exactly true for "Up". Before I get to reviewing the movie, for those that have not seen it, I can't recommend it highly enough. Take your kids, your significant other, or your grandmother. Each of them will be rewarded with a wonderful movie experience, and all for different, yet similar reasons. Ok, so on to the review.


From this point on, I will likely talk about parts of the movie that might give away the story or plot. Don't read any further if you haven't seen the movie or don't want to spoil it.

As has been Pixar's way over the last few of its films, this movie opens with a quiet, fairly dialog-free scene that is meant to set the stage for the rest of the movie. This has been a recipe for success for many of Pixar's movies... only in "Up", it's the quintessential scene of the entire movie. "Up" starts right off by pulling at your heart strings, and telling a beautiful story without ever saying a word. We learn all about our main character in the first few minutes of the film in a profound and meaningful way... and the man never speaks a word.

"Up", despite its complete lack of a love interest throughout most of the movie, is in fact a love story. It's a love story in the abstract... one in which a quiet man feels the meaning in his life disappear with the passing of the love of his life. He has seemingly had a good, long life with his beloved, and yet now, near the end of his days, feels the weight of a promise made, heretofore unfulfilled. The promise made between two young adventurers to someday visit the lost world of their long-gone childhood hero.

And the audience is immediately invested in the story. So much so that once Carl Fredricksen (voice by Ed Asner) decides it's time to fulfil that promise to his deceased wife, no-one really questions the outrageous method he uses to get to South America: by using enough helium filled balloons attached to andirons in his fire-place to lift his entire house off its foundation and fly the air currents south. It's preposterous. And completely ok. It is sweet and naive and fun and it would be heinous of a movie-goer to even question the probability of it. If that's your reaction then this movie probably isn't for you. In fact you should probably avoid Pixar movies altogether, as talking cars and monsters in the closet probably would make you just as irritable.

This movie of course has several interesting and well thought-out subplots. A young boy, Russel, looking to acquire badges for his scout sash becomes an unwitting stowaway on the flying home. Russel is an innocent, naive, but good hearted little boy who comes from an apparently broken home and is in desperate need of a father-figure. Carl, being single-minded in his purpose of getting his house, who he has now personified as his late wife,Ellie, to the lost world in South America, sees Russel as an inconvenience and an annoyance. And it is here that the movie begins to shape its message.

The rest of the movie is framed around forming relationships and letting those relationships take you in places you never expected. Carl, poor soul, feels incomplete since his wife passed away. He feels that he is missing something, and he believes with every fiber of his being that he has but one last task to complete to make his life complete. He made a promise to Ellie, and he meant to keep it, or risk living out his life feeling like he had disappointed her.

But it is during the very adventure of trying to fulfil this promise that he learns that his life was full and wonderful, and what he was missing now was not the fulfillment of a promise made in his youth, but the living of a life the way he had lived it before Ellie died... with hope and love and kinship towards someone who means something special to you. Carl needed Russel in his life (and Doug, of course... the dog they find along the way), and similarly Russel needed Carl. And in her wisdom, Ellie knew this all along. And in the "adventure book" she had kept, a book that Carl had not looked through since they were kids, Ellie left her own legacy to Carl, with pictures and mementos of the real adventure she had lived. She had long since given up the childhood fantasies she once carried in favor of an adventure far more meaningful and satisfying, and now she was urging Carl to do the same. And in becoming a part of Russel's life, he did just that, and in that way, did fulfil his promise.

In typical Pixar fashion, "Up" is ripe with humor, from the comically tense early interactions between Carl and Russel, to the strange dogs that live on the lost plateau in South America that wear collars that allow them to speak their thoughts (the funniest bit in the movie involves the "alpha dog" and the effect of a somewhat broken collar). Pixar knows how to push all the right buttons, and "Up" is no exception. I found myself at various times equally amused, entertained, and thought-provoked.

So once again, Pixar has managed to give us a portrait of life, to be enjoyed and cherished, in a 90 minute snapshot. Enjoy it and embrace it, as I did... and hope, as I do, that the next Pixar offering lives up to the impossibly high standards they continue to set for themselves.

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