Review: “Up”

May 31, 2009 at 4:41 pm 1 comment

Last summer, I came out of a screening for Pixar’s Wall-E shocked, not because I was disgusted or anything like that, but because I had just had a cinematic experience quite unlike anything I’ve ever had before.  What I like about Wall-E is that it told a story quite effectively without almost no dialogue, at least for the first 30 minutes or so.  Sure, when Wall-E makes it to the human ship, the movie becomes slightly less unique and a little more formulaic, but I still walked away in awe of the storytelling prowess of the folks at Pixar.  I began to think to myself, “How can they possibly top this?  Do an all-silent movie?”  If you’ve seen any of the Pixar shorts that usually play before a screening of their movies, you know that they can entertain for minutes at a time without a single word being said.

I started thinking about their other films and why I liked them so much.  Toy Story 2, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, and Ratatouille rank as some of my favorite animated films ever.  Now, after much thought, I can add Up to that list.  If Wall-E made its mark by being an almost-silent film, Up stands out because of its refinement of the traditional Hollywood narrative (think 3 Act Structure).  In fact, I think Up may very well be my favorite Pixar movie out of all of them.  This movie has quite possibly everything you could want in a summer movie: adventure, action, romance, and humor all rolled up in a story that also packs an emotional wallop in just the right places.

Up is the story of Carl Fredricksen (voiced perfectly by Ed Asner), an elderly widow who lives out his twilight years in the home he shared with his late wife, Ellie.  All around him, the world has moved forward.  The neighborhood he once lived in has given way to a metropolitan downtown district, formerly unknown places in the world have been traveled, and he’s stuck in the past.  Feeling guilty over an unkept promise he made to his wife, he decides to leave civilization behind and head to South America, where he and his wife were supposed to travel to years earlier.  Instead of going by plane or boat, like in any other kind of movie, Carl goes by house, levitating it off the ground by hundreds, if not thousands of balloons.

Along for the ride is plump Russell (Jordan Nagai), a clumsy boy who’s also a member of the Wilderness Explorers, a Boy Scouts-like organization for young people.  Carl and Russell will meet other companions on their journey, like Dug the Dog (Bob Peterson) and Kevin, a very large exotic bird that follows them around.  Of course, no movie is complete without a villain of some sort.  Christopher Plummer voices Charles Muntz, a childhood hero of Carl’s who turns out to be not what Carl was expecting.

If you look at Pixar’s filmography, you’ll notice a steady progression of technology.  They were the first to do an entire feature film in CG with Toy Story, and each subsequent movie become more visually appealing.  With Up, I had completely forgotten it was an animated film I was watching.  The screenwriters of all the Pixar films have nailed the script structure; they know when to increase the stakes, when to introduce a character or a plot point, and they know how long each act needs to last for just the right amount of time.  Up isn’t just a visually arresting movie, the storytelling is top notch, and the best I’ve seen this year.  As much as I enjoyed a movie like Star Trek, that can’t hold a candle to the story presented here.

The action isn’t just exciting, it kept me on edge.  The first major action set piece happens when Carl and Russell pass through a storm.  What wouldn’t have worked is if we saw young, well-built men in their 20’s and 30’s fighting to save their house.  What worked here was the proper ingredients for a two-minute nail-biter of a scene: a young boy who’s only contribution is his youthful optimism, and an old man, who may be passed his prime physically, but brings years of experience and common sense to the table.  Together, the two weather the storm as best they can, and it was sure fun to watch.  The excitement only ratchets up (no pun intended) as the movie plays along, including aerial dogfights with dogs, a sword fight in and on a large dirigible, and a chase through a canyon while riding Kevin the giant bird.

I’ll admit my eyes sure got teary while watching this.  Throughout the movie, there were moments when everyone in the theatre exclaimed something like, “That’s so sad!” This film will certainly pull on a few heartstrings (that is, if you don’t have a heard made of ice) and leave you searching for a way to dab at your eyes without anyone noticing.  Love and companionship plays a huge part of the film.  The subplot involving not just Carl, but Russell is extremely simple, but that’s what I think a movie needs to do in order to illicit an emotional response.  Most people don’t need elaborate plots, we just need the basics of what we understand as love and friendship.  After all, love is complicated, and yet so simple and basic that many storytellers forget how to convey it.  Director Pete Doctor and the rest of the writing and directing team knew exactly what it took to make us understand love in the eyes of Carl and Russell.

Without a doubt, Up may well be one of the best-reviewed movies of the year, and for good reason.  It’s got everything you need in not just a summer flick, but a good film in general.  Up is further proof that some of the best storytellers are housed in the creative superpower that is Pixar, but I can’t help but wonder when they’ll make a ‘bad’ movie (not that they’ve made anything I’d consider ‘bad’, I just didn’t care much for works like Cars and the first Toy Story).  As long as Pixar keeps churning out high-quality films like Wall-E and Up, I probably wouldn’t worry too much about the sub-par stuff.



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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Matt  |  May 31, 2009 at 9:56 pm

    And I’d say WALL-E stands well above Up precisely because it breaks “traditional structure”. It lets art be art, without confining itself to tradition.


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