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Pixar Sundays: Up (2009)

          In the history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was the only animated film ever to be nominated for Best Picture …until 2010. Pixar received their first of two Best Picture nominations the year the nominees were increased from five to ten, and this adulation was given to Up.
          Like WALL-E, Up broke from the mould, by centring its story on a senior citizen, the only thing more likely than a silent film to turn kids off. It’s premise was also very vague in the promotions. Pixar was clearly confident enough that the movie would do well purely by having their name attached. And while this kind of arrogance can lead to some bad artistic decisions as we’ll see later, it also can lead to some creative and spellbinding results.
          The movie is about Carl Fredricksen, an old widower who wants to finally realize the dream he and his late wife shared to move their home to Paradise Falls, somewhere in the rainforests of South America. Once his becomes the last house in a neighbourhood of skyscrapers scheduled for demolition, he lets fly thousands of balloons out his chimney, tearing the house from its foundation and flying off to reach that peak. But a boy scout stowaway called Russell is on board, and they’re forced to take a few unlikely companions before Carl can achieve this ambition and finally reconcile the death of his wife.
          What everyone remembers most about this movie is the opening sequence. And indeed it’s one of the best opening sequences captured on film. I’ve talked about Pixar’s rip-your-heart-out moments, but never before had they done it right off the bat at the start of a film. Usually you need time to invest in a character before you can care for them on an emotional level. But in Up, the relationship between Carl and Ellie is established so simply and firmly in the first few minutes, they’re immediately endearing. The bit where they meet and get to know each other as children is cute enough, but the montage that follows of their life together is downright poetic, with the motifs of the clouds, the balloons, and the hill that take on new meanings as the sequence progresses. There’s still a solid grasp on who they are though even as they mature. You can tell she’s more of the enthusiastic dreamer with loads of personality, while he’s the gentle supporter. And the music by the brilliant Michael Giacchino rises and dips in sync with the mood, having an emotionality all its own. It’s purely visual and completely clear. How powerful is that one shot of Ellie sobbing in the hospital room, enough to convey that she can’t have children? Or Carl’s realization too late that they never went to South America as they promised? In the span of ten minutes we’re introduced to a couple, watch them fall in love, live their life happily, grow old together, and even though it ends on a tragic note, it’s also bittersweet (moreso through a couple scenes later in the film). It’s vivid and honest and moving and beautiful, and it’s one of the finest things Pixar has ever produced. In fact, the opening ten minutes are enough of a masterpiece that the rest of the film…is a bit of a disappointment afterwards.
          Don’t get me wrong, Up is still a good movie, and one of Pixar’s most imaginative in terms of its premise. But clearly the best part is right at the beginning, and though the rest of the film is still entertaining and generally engaging, it has no chance of living up to that opening. It’s kind of unfair. 
          Pete Docter is the director, and this is his first film since Monsters Inc. And I have to wonder if he or co-director and writer Bob Peterson grew the story out of the image of a house suspended by balloons. It’s a very impactful image, naturally colourful and fantastic, even if it does defy reality more than a little bit. Or maybe it was just the odd grouping of an old man, a boy scout, a giant tropical bird, and a dog with a translation collar. The fact that this group is travelling through the South American rainforest while weighing down a floating house just adds to the strangeness, and there’s something to be admired in how all these bizarre elements come together well. But the main plot eventually becomes about protecting this bird whom Russell names ‘Kevin’, and the conflict for Carl is having to choose between his house and the promise he made Ellie, and saving Kevin from captivity. On top of this story having been done before, you never feel a relationship between Carl and Kevin. At least, not one that’s natural. Carl and Russell’s relationship is well built (I love the fake-out daydream of Carl dropping Russell from the window). It really works in a couple scenes where we learn about Russell’s sad home-life, his absentee father and being raised by a stepmother. In fact, Carl’s safekeeping of Kevin seems merely for Russell’s sake. Which gives the impression he only cares about Kevin because Russell does. This isn’t helped by the fact Charles Muntz isn’t defined well as a villain. We know what he’s doing is wrong because Kevin has children out there, but there’s no indication Muntz knows that. All he wants is to capture the bird, return home and vindicate himself. While Carl has decent reason to fear him, as Muntz does make the paranoid assumption he wants to capture the bird for himself instead; it’s not like Muntz is a psychotic hunter bent on killing rare animals, like McLeach from The Rescuers Down Under or Donald Trump Jr. Also, there is the issue that Muntz is still alive and healthy despite being at least twenty years older than Carl and having lived in the wilderness for seventy years (in fact he looks a little younger than Carl). 
          That being said, everything before they reach South America is done quite well, I love the little commentary on industrialization by how Carl’s house is the last plot of land not taken over by some commercial building. The way the flying house works is nice, they show adequately how it functions. And I love how Ellie’s presence is there throughout the movie, Carl still talks to her and is still very much in love. Looking through the photos she put in her book that he hadn’t noticed before is his major reconciliation moment in the last act -and another damn tearjerker to boot. That scene where he fights the construction worker over the mailbox that has their names on it is particularly good as well, especially how it ends with him unintentionally injuring the man with his cane. Pixar had the balls to show the gash on his forehead and to seriously address the issue of Carl being labelled a public menace. 
          Carl is voiced by Ed Asner, and I’m so glad to see Ed Asner as the lead in a movie. He plays the part fantastically too. There’s definitely a lot of Lou Grant in how he confronts people, and just his general attitude (and his appearance is pure Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?), but he’s also a distinct person on his own, with his determination and stamina in spite of his age. There are a few typical old man jokes early on, but they’re done very well. He’s both really wry and funny when he needs to be, but also kindly and caring. The bit where he gives Russell the “Ellie badge” (a grape soda cap Ellie gave him as a child that he still wears), is corny, but Asner sells it as something heartwarming. Russell is a pretty good character too, a boy scout essentially, who despite his many merit badges, has little practical experience in the wilderness. But he has confidence and perseverance in spite of this, and feels like a real kid. Jordan Nagai, a real kid, voiced him, and was very good. He hits that great middle ground between annoying and sentimental. He’s a bit of a smart alec, gets overly excited easily, but he has a good heart. And how many of us as kids moaned about being tired walking long distances, sometimes until we slumped over to the utter irritation of our parents? Nagai is also really good at how Russell talks about his home life in a despondent yet matter-of-fact way. The great Christopher Plummer is really good as the Charles Lindburgh style aviator Charles Muntz, hero to Carl and Ellie. His set-up is really nice too, particularly the little museum of natural history in his dirigible. Again he is a bit of a forced villain, and one can you spot from his first appearance, but I do like the foreshadowing of his love of dogs in the old film reel. Apparently he’s an inventor too, because of those dog collars; and yeah those dogs are pretty funny. Dug, not as much as when you first see the film, but he still gets a decent laugh or two. He as well as Alpha are voiced by the still impressive Bob Peterson, while Docter himself lends his voice to the sounds of Kevin -an exquisitely designed creature I suspect purposely made to look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. John Ratzenberger’s cameo as a construction worker is essentially Mr. Prosser from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
          Carl faces no repercussions for his highly illegal and hazardous actions, but this movie after the opening, isn’t much into realism, which does help the films’ whimsical tone (the dogs fly bi-planes at one point in a really cheesy Star Wars homage). Whether a suspended house being held down by one old man and a kid bothers you is completely dependent on how well you accept the rest of the films’ logic. It’s a greater step than some Pixar movies, but I can abide it okay. Despite the lack of ramifications on Carl’s part, the ending is still wonderful. Having lost his house during the final battle on Muntz’s dirigible, he makes it back and becomes a grandfather figure to Russell, filling the void in his life left by Ellie. We then see that the house found its way home to the peak of Paradise Falls, just as Ellie had drawn, symbolically allowing her to rest in peace where she always dreamed to go. 
          That final shot I love. The opening sequence I love. A handful of character moments throughout the film I love. And the movie on a whole I like. I don’t consider Up one of Pixar’s best films, despite it having some of the best stuff I’ve seen from Pixar. It is a shame that the movie as a whole has to be compared to that opening sequence, which could easily be a standalone short. However, even without it, Up would be a good movie. It would still be imaginative, funny, and touching, with a likeable cast and great animation. Does the opening sequence eclipse the rest of the movie? Certainly. But the rest of the movie is still a good time, made better because of it.

          Considering how much the first ten minutes of Up works as an independent short, including an additional film ahead of it feels a bit redundant. Partly Cloudy I’m sure is the prequel to Storks as its about how storks deliver babies to expectant parents. But not just babies, also kittens, puppies, and anything else that’s young and cute. All of these infants are made by the clouds who rely on the storks to carry out deliveries. One dark cloud however can never attract a stork, because he’s not very good -or at least doesn’t make the typical variety of baby, instead preferring crocodiles, porcupines, and eels. When one stork volunteers to make deliveries for him, he winds up harming himself multiple times in the process, before going to another cloud making the dark one sad and angry. But the stork comes back wearing football gear to protect himself and to continue their partnership. This is definitely a creative short but it’s lacking in substance. It’s a really simple conflict and resolution, it’s kind of a given what the moral will be and until it gets there, it’s not terribly funny or interesting. It’s mostly dull and cute and harmless and completely forgettable. I’m probably not going to remember it and neither will you. What’s next?

Next Week: Toy Story 3 (2010)

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