Thursday, June 4, 2009

What's Up With UP?


Normally when I see a new Pixar film, the result is to be expected: Pure, unadultered praise and undying adoration. And at first, while watching UP, I was sure that would be the case once again. But then a funny thing happened: The movie continued to unspool (or digitally project, as the case may be), and I found myself... well... I won't go as far as to say "unimpressed," because the movie is great in many ways... but certainly not blown out of the water like I was with both TOY STORIES and THE INCREDIBLES, or stricken with the cinematic thunderbolt like with WALL-E. It even left a bad taste in my mouth at one point. Please allow me to apologize in advance for any incoherence that may plague this review, as I try to figure out what exactly happened here.

Let's start with what I liked, because that will make me feel better about myself. The movie, of course, is about Carl Fredrickson, a 72-year-old codger who sets out to fulfill his lifelong dream to find adventure in South America... in his house... carried off by thousands of helium balloons. Turns out, though, that a young Boy Scout has accidentally stowed away and naturally, hijinks ensue and friendships develop. The movie gets off to a great start with a flashback of young, adventure-seeking Carl meeting his soulmate (and fellow adventurer), Ellie. Then comes an expository montage that is just... wow. It traces the ups and downs of Carl & Ellie's life together, from the day they get married to the present day and runs the gamut from joyous to utterly heart-wrenching. Apparently this kind of montage is big in 2009, as we've already had two, in WATCHMEN and WOLVERINE -- but this one was by far the best. In fact, it was as good as anything I've ever seen in a Pixar film (which means it was as good as anything I've seen in any movie). I'm not sure I've ever found myself in tears during the first 15 minutes of a film, but it happened here. It's an amazing sequence, and far and away the best part of the film.

The animation and visual style of the movie is simply astonishing. Pixar should win a special achievement award for the balloons alone. The wilderness and landscapes are spectacularly rendered, and buoyed by a magnificent, dreamlike score, the movie has a distinct other-worldly feel. The use of digital 3D is equally astonishing -- it may be the best and most immersive use of 3D I've seen. There is nothing gimmicky -- no projectiles shooting at you or things bouncing for no particular reason. It feels completely natural, like you're floating right alongside Carl & Co. with your own giant balloon bouquet. Seriously, if you see this movie an a non-3D screen, you are not REALLY seeing it at all.

As a character, Carl Fredrickson is an old grump with a heart of gold and complexities that run deep -- if you don't take pleasure in rooting for him every step of the way, you are, frankly, a soulless slug. (He actually kind of reminded me of Asbjørn Jensen, the main character of the Oscar-nominated short film, THE PIG. Similar temperment, and they both had big glasses, too!) Carl's young cohort, Russell, is also filled with depth -- a lonely kid starved for fatherly attention, with a healthy curiosity and an appetite for adventure that, deep down, Carl can relate to. But my favorite characters are the army of talking dogs that Carl & Russell encounter during their quest -- especially Dug, the outcast that befriends them. We've seen talking dogs in movie before, but never like this -- it's a stroke of genius, as if the writers really tapped into a dog's mind and wrote down all the manic thoughts that must be going on in there ("I just met you and I love you!"). I laughed out loud every time I saw Dug in the trailer, and he's even better in the movie. Pixar films have had plenty of memorable supporting characters over the years, from Mr. Potato Head to Frozone to the little "foreign contaminant!" guy, and Dug is one of the best yet.

Okay, so, great characters, amazing visuals, an emotional rollercoaster... what the hell was WRONG with the movie, then? Well, simply put, I think they just overplotted things a little too much. I would've been very content if the movie had been centered around Carl & Russell's (and Dug's!) adventures in the flying house, with peril coming from the elements, landscapes, mysterious creatures, etc. It would've been very KING KONG-esque and cool. And for the first part of their adventures, that's exactly what we got. But then things unraveled when they introduced Carl's childhood hero, an explorer named Charles Muntz, who has been living in the wilderness for decades on a quest of his own. Frankly, I could have done without this sub-plot -- it bogged the movie down and was just flat-out BORING. Yes, for the first time, I was bored while watching a Pixar film. The chase scenes should have been cool seeing as how they involved a zeppelin and a flying house and talking dogs in biplanes... but overall, this entire chunk of the movie seemed gratuitous and unnecessary.

Furthermore, I disagreed with the film on an emotional level. At one point, Carl is forced to make a choice between rescuing Russell's new bird friend, Kevin, or saving his beloved house from flames. He chooses the house, and the film implies that he made the wrong choice. But why? If I had to choose between an animal I just met and had no emotional attachment to, and a house I've lived in for most of my life, I'd choose the house, too! Even worse, later, when he finally loses the house in battle, Carl changes his tune and says, "It's only a house." WHAT?? Now, I realize, at this point, the house had to be sacrified to save the good guys' lives... but to say "it's only a house" is ridiculous. He lived in that house for 50 years! I don't care how many adventures he's experienced and bonding moments he's shared, it's more than "only a house." In fact, it's borderline insulting to me personally: My parents are in the process of selling the house that has been in my family for the past 23 years -- not a terribly long time by some standards, but certainly a majority of my life, and it has been quite an emotional experience for all of us. If someone said to me, "Eh, what difference does it make, it's only a house!" I'd punch them in the fucking jaw. "Only a house," indeed. Come on, Pixar... for a company whose two most popular movies are based around the nostalgia for old children's toys, you should know better than that!

I guess what it boils down to is that the movie is, for the most part, a great little fairy tale with one really bad plot twist and a couple of moral issues that rub me the wrong way on a personal level. Mildly disappointing, perhaps, because you always expect to leave a Pixar film feeling like you're floating on air... but not remotely enough to cause me to lose even the slightest inkling of faith in their unparalleled awesomeness. If I were to rank the Pixar filmography (which I really should do someday... I smell a Top 5 list!), I'd probably put UP somewhere in the middle. And really, a middle-of-the-pack Pixar film is still better than the vast majority of everything else. So! To make a long story short: Go see the movie, bask in what's good about it, agree or disagree with my quibbles, but above all remember... SQUIRREL!

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