Sunday 7 March 2010

Up (2009)

Sunday 7 March 2010
WRITERS & DIRECTORS: Pete Docter & Bob Peterson (story by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson & Thomas McCarthy)
VOICES: Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai & Bob Peterson
RUNNING TIME: 96 mins. BUDGET: $175m
I approach every Pixar animation with big expectations, as the studio's only failing has been Cars and everything else has flirted with greatness (The Incredibles), become a cultural icon (Toy Story), or achieved filmmaking excellence (WALL-E). Thankfully, Up's in the higher stratum of Pixar output, if another of its films that loosens its tight grip on your affections a day or so later. Nevertheless, this is still another beautiful, graceful, heartfelt, funny adventure, with something to say about embracing life, marriage, true love, the elderly, childhood heroes, unfulfilled dreams, animal cruelty, and surrogate parents...

Carl (Ed Asner) is a crabby old man due to be evicted from his ramshackle city home by property developers. As a boy he was bewitched by news reel footage of explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), an interest shared by a young gap-toothed girl called Ellen, whom he later married and lived happily with for many decades before she died. During that time, Carl and Ellen shared a dream of visiting Paradise Falls in Peru, but never found the time (or saved enough pennies) to make it a reality. So, with only a musty retirement home beckoning, former balloon vendor Carl attaches thousands of helium balloons to his home and, literally, takes off for an adventure to honour his late-wife's memory, accidentally taking a chubby boy scout called Russell (Jordan Nagai) along for the ride...

There's such clear passion and magnificence to Pixar's CGI, which have recently started to demonstrate maturity and emotional complexity. Up may not entertain youngsters with as much ease as Finding Nemo or get as much repeat-play as Monsters, Inc., but for older kids and adults this is a more enriching experience. Much has been made of the opening 10-minutes, which succinctly tells a romantic story from beginning to end while eliciting a tear, but for me the more poignant moment was Carl leafing through his late-wife's childhood scrapbook she'd prepared for their untaken trip to Paradise Falls, expecting to see blank pages but instead finding them full of photos of the adventure she did have: married life with her adoring husband. It's really rather wonderful and life-affirming just thinking about it.

There's a beautiful slither of Roald Dahl-meets-Hayao Miyazaki whimsy that snakes through Up, too: from the obvious James & The Giant Peach-like mode of transport, the quirky delight of Carl having to drag his floating house around while trekking (he's literally tethered to his past), to the fact this South American adventure inexplicably involves dogs with high-tech collars enabling them to talk as fervent, distractible extroverts ("--squirrel!") Everything climaxes with an exciting aerial battle around an old airship protected by goggled pooches flying biplanes, in order to rescue a lolloping emu-like bird called Kevin. That description should give you can idea of how blissfully idiosyncratic things become.

There are a few downsides, true: missed opportunities with its "Lost World" of jungle and mountains that only contain a pack of talking dogs and a giant bird, which was disappointing considering the potential for more animals, people and peril; the film's villain (rediscovered explorer Muntz, who's been trying for decades to clear his besmirched name) must rank as one of Pixar's most conventional baddies; and the stakes boil down to saving a big ostrich and keeping Russell safe, which is rather small-scale compared to other Pixar adventures. That said, maybe it was wise to go for something more intimate, considering the preceding WALL-E saw a chirping robot essentially revive human civilization. But these are small nitpicks weighed against a movie that's exciting, poignant and highly recommended.