Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Up (2009) A Film by Pete Docter

When Pixar releases a film, it seems its reception is either bound to snowball into a mountain of acclaim or a mere anthill of interest. Recently, they've hit the former three consecutive times, with Ratatouille (2007), Wall-E (2008), and now Up (2009). Wall-E took Pixar's traditional ethos and turned them on their head, and it is safe to say that Up does the same. The film is no piece of cute anthropomorphism, nor is it a prosopopoeial message movie; in fact, Up is the first time, as far as I can tell, that we've seen real human blood in a Pixar film. Pete Docter delivers a very grounded, human tale with an elderly, secretly tender curmudgeon at its center. However, along with Wall-E, Pixar has proven to couple their new wave of refreshing animations with a similar set of flaws.

Because Up is such a deceptively simple film, it is all the more disappointing when it pounds us with action-packed, increasingly convoluted magical realism. The film opens with the same kind of economical, dialogue-free set-up that was impressive in Wall-E's Chaplinesque beginning. Carl, a four-eyed boy with a penchant for romanticism (following the newsreels he views of Charles Muntz, a heroic explorer with a zeppelin, he imitates Muntz's actions on the street near his house), runs into Ellie, another wannabe adventurer who clings to a desire to reach the South American oasis dubbed Paradise Falls, grows old with her, and sadly witnesses her death in a matter of minutes. The film is effortless in its ability to document their entire lifetime with poignancy (thanks to the incredibly realistic facial expressions), and despite the sequence's inevitably prompt structure, it is not schmaltzy and melodramatic but rather sentimental and nostalgic in the best possible way.

At this point Carl is left alone in the couple's lifelong home, a retired balloon salesman who holds tight to his memories of the past which are literally nailed to the walls. When a retirement home committee arrives one day to claim Carl, he cleverly assembles a balloon-oriented rig in the chimney that is released all at once, ripping the house from the bedrock and sending it straight into cumulus clouds. The next morning, while drifting peacefully in his home through the crystal-clear blue sky, he hears a knock at his door and finds Russell, the young boyscout who pledged at his door Jehovah's-Witness style the previous day, clutched against the siding. A hyper-passionate globetrotter hopeful himself, Russell joins Carl - much to his dismay as he chatters nonstop - on his excursion to Paradise Falls, aspiring to plant the house beside it so that Ellie's spirit, which is preserved inside, can bask in the glory. Docter does a terrific job of engaging in this section; the story is taut and the imagery, when seen for the first time, is conceptually marvelous. It is perhaps Pixar's biggest visual triumph ever to have juxtaposed so perfectly the petite house with its multicolored balloons looming above, the floor of puffy white clouds (an extension of the short that precedes the film in its theatrical showing), and the spotless blue sky. When they encounter a threatening thunderstorm and the house sways convulsively in the stratosphere, it hints at an entirely separate direction the story could have taken, one that would take place more prominently in the sky.

Unfortunately however, with Russell's surprisingly skillful steering techniques, the house lands in a majestic canyon in Venezuela directly across from the Falls. The visual invention still does not suffer in the slightest, most notably with the heavenly light that sprays the canyon, but the story takes a turn that is ultimately detrimental. Carl and Russell trudge around the canyon, tugging the house now like disciples dragging their weary camels, and pass through a mysterious jungle that houses talking dogs (not in the normal way, but with electronic collars) and a monstrously large but friendly parakeet-like creature. These unusual animals, they find, are being kept by Charles Muntz, whom Carl is ecstatic to meet at first. In classic Pixar fashion though, Muntz is revealed as the bad guy and the remainder of the film is spent lounging in lethargic good vs. evil conventions, with Carl as the truly unlikely hero. This is not the direction that was meant for Up, a simple story at heart about one man's search for meaning, no matter how small, just as humans were not the direction for Wall-E. After the wonderful opening, it seemed that the only place that Up could go was up.

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