About 40 minutes into Pixar’s new animated feature UP, a 4 year old girl sitting a few seats down from me turned to her mother and said, “I want to go home.”
I’m sure there will be many children who will love UP and many Doug the Talking Dog stuffed animals will be sold. However, like the little girl seated in my row, there will be many kids for whom the larger themes of UP will sail right over their heads.
UP is a film not of cartoon characters but of real people. It is a great film, entirely in its own class when compared to the other releases so far in 2009. The film opens with the meeting of two young children, Carl and Ellie. Both have wild imaginations and thirsts for adventure, and the two instantly fall into a love that will last them the rest of their lives. The story of Carl and Ellie is told in a prologue that is by far the greatest achievement that Pixar has ever accomplished. With this prologue, UP manages to do in 10 minutes what BENJAMIN BUTTON couldn’t do in over 3 hours. It is powerful storytelling and what struck me the most about the story of Carl and Ellie was the wisdom it contained. The sequence contains no dialogue because it understands that some of life’s most powerful moments exist in gestures, not words. A balloon tied to a stick sailing through a hospital room affected me as emotionally as anything I’ve seen in recent memory. Ever since they were children, Carl and Ellie’s dream was to build a home on the cliffs of Paradise Island, the famous destination of their favorite explorer, Charles Muntz. They save money in a jar for the big move but as they get older, real life gets in the way. Car repairs, hospital bills and the like cause the jar to keep being dipped into until both have grown old. There is a moment when Carl looks at his great love and realizes that she is now an old woman, and the full grasp of that deferred dream settles in. That Pixar can manipulate Carl’s face with computers to display such a complex human emotion is incredible, yet entirely seamless.
The real story of UP begins as Carl begins his life without Ellie. Alone for the first time, he occupies the house they lived in together on a completely barren construction lot. All of the neighbors around him have sold out to a big corporation except for Carl. Their house, filled with all the pictures and trinkets of a life spent with another person now feels empty. It is soon after that he decides to fulfill his promise to Ellie and move their house to Paradise Falls, aided by an endless bunch of helium balloons that stick out of his chimney. He soon finds that he isn’t alone on his journey. He is joined by a young Wilderness Explorer Scout named Russell, who shares the same adventurous spirit that once lived in Carl.
UP largely involves the adventures that Carl and Russell encounter once they reach their destination. There are hilarious bits involving a pack of dogs that have special electronic collars that allow us to hear their thoughts and the film also contains a truly sinister villain in the form of another explorer whose spirit of adventure has corrupted him. The film is genuinely funny, with scores of colorful creatures and characters. Michael Giacchino’s score flutters and soars, keeping the film humming along beautifully.
Last year I told you that WALL-E was the best film that Pixar had ever made. This year, they have raised the bar yet again. UP is a beautiful film both visually and thematically. I watched the 2-D presentation and am thankful for the experience given that some critics saw the 3-D presentation as a way of dulling the film’s rich color palette. UP is a film about love and loss, the struggle to move from one chapter to the next and the special relationships that can propel us forward. It is the film to beat of 2009.