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: Movie Review - Up
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Nov 7th 2009
I think I'm not alone in thinking of Pixar as the most reliable storyteller in movies today. At least when it comes to companies, not individual writers -- and even trying to think of one, I still can't think of a single writer who has delivered, since the beginning of his fairly extensive career, a body of work as consistent and exceptional as Pixar has as a company. They don't seem to have a "black sheep" within them.
"Up" stays true to this amazing quality standard, even though it is, by no means, better than "Wall-E", which was far more creative and thematically ambitious. But really: blaming a movie for not being better than "Wall-E" is kind of really fucking unreasonable. "Up" has a heart of its own and deals with another theme many companies would be afraid of tackling on a film for all ages: the dream everyone has for their lives. Their final ambition, their lifelong goal.
Carl Fredricksen is an old man who had a very happy marriage for all his life, until the recent death of his beloved Ellie. Since then, Carl has grown disinterested in society and life in general, which isn't helped by the fact everything around his house is being rebuilt by a construction company -- which would like his house to disappear as well. Refusing to let himself live the rest of his years in nostalgic self-pity, Carl decides to pursue his and Ellie's never-fulfilled dream of having a house on Paradise Falls, and seeing no easy way to do this conventionally, he tethers thousands of ballons to his house to lift it off the ground and go to South America, where the place is located. Only an unwanted guest, an hyperactive child called Russell, comes along by accident, and once in Paradise Falls, Carl's dream clashes with another man's: adventurer Charles Muntz, whom Carl has been a fan of since childhood.
Obviously, "Up" is not a movie concerned about realism, and requires some suspension of disbelief at times -- we never see Carl or Russell eating or drinking, the way Russell ends up in Carl's flying house isn't very believable and it's preposterous, to say the least, that Carl and Russell manage to reach South America after a single day of voyage (this would have been more believable if the trip happened with no problems, but they run into a storm, which makes it all harder to stomach). Also, it's inconsistent to show Carl using a lift to descend his staircase, but then show him performing moves that require incredible agility. Even for a movie about a guy flying his house with the help of balloons, this kind of stretches the limits of my personal suspension of disbelief.
However, it's the heart of the movie that makes it memorable. The relationship between Carl and Ellie is illustrated by a quick sequence in the beginning of the film that shows them as kids. This sequence not only portrays Ellie as adorably excited, it also portrays Carl as adorably quiet, and their chemistry managed to touch me in less than five minutes. This sequence also showcases Pixar's typical technical proeficiency -- like the subtle way they find to show us that Carl is blushing when Ellie is touching his hand. They don't even need a close-up to show it, they just use lighting and movement.
But it's the next sequence that really works as the film's base: the montage that shows Ellie and Carl's married life. There is no dialogue at all, only Michael Giacchino's (wonderful) music and the characters' movements and facial expressions. It not only portrays the beautiful relationship between them with, I dare say, perfection, it also develops Carl's character to the point where his bitterness after she dies is not only entirely believable, but entirely forgiveable (and the script never overdoes Carl's bitterness to "Gran Torino" levels. Fortunately).
Also, I think it's the first time Pixar uses blood in a blatant way (maybe in any way), when Carl accidentally hits a man with his cane way too strongly, causing his forehead to bleed -- a moment that makes clear that "Up" is a film that won't hold back in its depiction of grief and that won't patronise kids to the point where a liquid that runs in everyone's veins can't be shown briefly. Even kids expect a blow like that to hurt, and only showing the man scratching his intact forehead would be like the Coyote being merely covered in ash after being blown up by tons of TNT -- it works for the cartoon, but comedy wasn't the point of this particular scene. This is also not the only depiction of violence in the film.
(continued in comments)
Nov 7th 2009
"Up" deserves a lot of credit for exploring its theme to the fullest. The film's "villain", adventurer Charles Muntz (even older than Carl), is not portrayed as an unidimensional monster, only becoming a threat when he feels his lifelong dream is in danger. In fact, he's painted as an once reasonable person who, in his loneliness, grew a tendency for madness when dealing with things he's obsessive about. This makes him into a much more intriguing antagonist, and it's particularly interesting how he avoids killing Carl even when he has the chance to do so, only resorting to this when absolutely convinced Carl's death is the only way for Charles to achieve his own dream.
You might ask, then, how Carl can be the "hero". After all, what makes Charles' dream less worthy of fulfillment? In this case, Charles is a hunter, and he's after a certain bird for years and didn't hesitate in dealing harshly with whoever got in his way (i.e. killing them). This bird also has offspring and isn't a threat to anyone, and Charles only wants him as a trophy and a way to clear up his name (ruined in his early years, when one of his trophies was revealed to be a fraud).
Regardless, "Up" avoids the black-and-white morality most "all ages" films go for, showing a conflict between two men after their dreams, rather than a "hero" and a "villain". And the resolution of this conflict is very brave in not providing narrative satisfaction -- something that enriches the film tremendously. Check the last paragraph for a better explanation, but beware SPOILERS.
"Up" is less successful with a member of its supporting cast. While Carl is a fascinating protagonist, Russell only works as an obvious and often annoying counterpoint to Carl's age. He has a good number of funny moments, but he's the stereotypical child sidekick. I felt kind of the same way, to a larger degree, about Short Round on "Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom", although most people felt a bit stronger about him: more spefically they wanted to see him stomped on by an elephant. I didn't feel that way, although I can understand the feeling. Dunno, call me patient.
The rest of the supporting cast, however, brings the usual Pixar charisma to the film. The talking dogs are a touch of genius not because they talk, but HOW they talk -- like dogs. To the point where they interrupt conversations and yell "SQUIRREL!", going silent and still for a moment, before resuming exactly where they left off. Also, the portrayal of the dog's inconditional love for its owner is downright brilliant, as evidenced by Dug's immediate affection for Carl and Russell. Not to mention the dog's weakness -- an urge to go fetch whatever you throw -- is explored to hilarious effect.
Kevin, the giant bird, is equally funny -- portrayed as wild and yet not a threat to anyone that doesn't endanger him. Carl's relationship with the bird (basically summarized by "Shoo! Get out of here! Off! Go!") and Russell's ("Can he stay? Can he stay?") is a bit cliched, but so well-executed I didn't care.
The voice acting is nothing short of magnificent. Elie Docter (daughter of co-director Pete Docter) gives the Young Ellie a contagious energy, Edward Asner gives Carl a bitter yet good-hearted voice, Christopher Plummer shows Charles' change of attitude with subtlety and efficiency, co-director Bob Peterson does a spectacular job as the dogs Dug and Alpha, giving them entirely different and hilarious personalities, and Jordan Nagai is the reason Russell is an often funny character -- his childish voice full of wonder makes him nearly impossible to hate. I especially love the way he says "I'm a friend to aaaaall animals".
In terms of visuals, "Up" is, of course, ingenious. The animation is superb, full of subtleties and impressive facial expressions. The character design is incredible, with special mention to Muntz's similarity to Kirk Douglas. Pixar once again makes it look easy (when it's anything but). Also, directors Bob Peterson and Pete Docter go for mostly static but beautifully composed camera angles, but when an action scene is called for, they do not hesitate to impress, giving those sequences a lot of visual energy (there's a particularly exciting -- and very funny -- moment when Carl is riding the bird with Russell hanging from a rope and swinging from one side to the other. Peterson and Docter pull the camera back to show the scene on its whole, and the amount of confusion happening is so much it made me laugh while not forgetting the characters are in danger).
Michael Giacchino, who has been proving himself one of the best composers in the business with his consistently brilliant work in "The Incredibles", "Speed Racer", "Star Trek" and others, does his typically excellent job of composing the music with an emphasis on helping tell the story as effectively as possible -- and as the sequence showing Ellie and Carl's marriage proves, he succeeds. The sound design also deserves applause for its efficiency and attention to detail -- it's great how they make the wires tethering the balloons emit musical notes, like a guitar, to show how stretched they are when Carl passes his fingers on them.
But when it comes to some of the visual design, "Up" might look too bland for Pixar. Paradise Falls can be accurately summed up as rock formations and jungles, and the heart of the place itself is nothing but a lonely waterfall -- however, I've come to realize while writing this review, this is actually perfect -- since it shows how personal Carl's dream is and also, how superficial. "Paradise Falls" looks much more charming and appealing to him than it should to the audience, and if it actually made our jaws drop, Carl's idea of trying to ease his grief by going there wouldn't sound so doomed to fail, and the moment when he finally does get there and realizes nothing has changed wouldn't seem as believable.
(continued in comments)
Nov 7th 2009
And this leads to that which is the most memorable scene in "Up", when Carl realizes Ellie's legacy in an absolutely beautiful moment that sounds entirely believable. You might think it's far-fetched that he would only notice it at that point in his life, but it's perfectly coherent with Carl's character -- after Ellie's death, he had no wish of looking for it, because it reminded him of her in a painful way because she wasn't alive to fulfill their lifelong dream. This might sound vague, and it does, if you haven't watched the film, but I want to keep spoilers to a minimum. I think you'll see what I mean when you watch the film, which, I hope it's clear by now, you should.
Weakened only by a few and aforementioned problems (Carl's preposterous agility, etc.), "Up" is an emotionally powerful and thematically brave film about dreams that does not try to soften its message, and even contains a metaphor of how our dreams can come at the expense of other people's. It's funny and it has a heart, and it was clearly crafted with passion like all Pixar films. The company has reached a point where, even if their future output for some unfathomable reason becomes shit, the legacy they've already left behind has reached the status of undeniable.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS FOR FUCK'S SAKE SPOILERS FROM HERE ON:
The death of Charles Muntz doesn't feel as narratively satisfactory as similar deaths in other Disney films -- much to the contrary, it feels like a necessary evil and a shame. As twisted as his dream was, he only wanted to fulfill it and be loved, and Carl's dream came true at the expense of Charles' dream and also his life, even though the "villain's" attitude is to blame for this. And this feeling of "it didn't have to be this way", as I said, only enriches the film.
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