The Good: Emotional resonance, Opening, General animation
The Bad: 3-D effects are entirely underwhelming, Entirely predictable
The Basics: Fairly depressing, Up has a good protagonist and tugs the heartstrings, but is not at all worth seeing in 3-D!
Two summers ago, as Summer Blockbuster Season heated up, I was one of the few (only at the time, actually) to enthusiastically pan the boring, predictable and utterly disappointing WALL-E, which was Disney/Pixar's big outing that year. I enjoyed that film up until the first appearance of people, which took the movie on the fast track to Crapville. So, to say I was at all excited about seeing Up, last year's Disney/Pixar attempt to recapture animation magic in the summer, when my wife said she wanted to see it would be an outright lie. I was mortified to be giving Disney eleven bucks for each of us to see this movie in 3-D; the special effects for the three-dimensional effects are entirely underwhelming. In fact, my wife, who ooh'ed and ahh'ed over that year's Monsters Vs. Aliens when we saw that in 3-D barely gasped once from the effects in Up.
That said, Up is vastly better than I predicted - though I did call it quite accurately as yet another movie where the big character journey was getting the cranky old man to hug the supposedly-cute little boy - and has some real moments of emotional impact, especially for anyone who has ever lost a loved one. But in this way, Pixar continues its tradition of starting the film amazingly, then drifting off. In this case, Up is an erratic character journey that has truly adult levels of emotional pathos in its protagonist in the opening sequence, devolves into a buddy action comedy and ends up as a pretty predictable story that even children are unlikely to be surprised by. And if the damned thing hadn't made me cry a couple of times, I'd be able to pan it as being terribly unoriginal and dull. As it is, Up is a good film, but it is far sadder than most animated films and it carries those emotional moments remarkably well. Where most Pixar films include a bevy of adult jokes to keep the adults stuck with children seeing their moves mildly entertained, Up keeps adults engaged by illustrating with stark realism loss and the effects of life on the plans we make.
Carl Frederickson and Ellie are childhood sweethearts whose relationship is based on a common interest in the adventures of explorer Charles Muntz. Ellie dreams of going to South America, to Paradise Falls and she and Carl grow up together. They marry, buy a house, and begin working together at the Zoo, with Carl selling balloons and Ellie working with the animals. They save money to go to Paradise Falls, but broken roofs, busted tires, and accidents force the pair to use that money for other things life throws at them. When Ellie is unable to have children, they look to Paradise Falls again for their dreams, but life puts that plan on the back shelf until Carl is a widower living alone in their house with developers building skyscrapers around him. He is visited by Russell, a Wilderness Explorer, who wants to earn his Assisting The Elderly badge to advance, whom he sends on a snipe hunt the night before he is to be sent to a retirement home.
Carl has a plan of his own, though, and when the nursing home workers come, he releases the anchors on thousands of helium balloons he has inflated and connected to his house. The house lifts off and on his journey away from civilization; he discovers that Russell has tagged along. Carl awakens with the house and Russell just a canyon away from Paradise Falls and he and the boy begin lugging the house to its intended resting point. On the way, they encounter an actual snipe and a dog outfitted with a collar that allows him to talk (Dug). Dug, though, is not alone; he is part of a team of dogs sent out by an aged Muntz, who is hunting the snipe for his collection. Carl, Russell and Dug must team up to save the snipe from Muntz and his dogs while protecting Carl's floating house.
Up is a film preoccupied with missed opportunities and it is genuinely sad. Writers and directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson (who voices Dug, despite sounding like Seth Rogen) manage to pull on the viewer's heartstrings quite effectively by continually bringing back a book of adventures Ellie started as a little girl and illustrating the intended resting place of the house. For anyone who ever had dreams to have adventures with someone who died, the opening sequence is a tear jerker, as is the final shot of Paradise Falls in the movie.
That said, the effects are underwhelming in 3-D and for those thinking of seeing it that way, save your money; there are very few shots that are visually complicated enough to justify the additional expense of the three-d ticket. As well, the Pixar artists cheat on this one in ways that only a child would not be annoyed by. The best example is in the initial liftoff sequence. Russell is nowhere to be found. While he claims he was under the porch, he is not visible there, nor is he on the porch as the house sails off. As well, Pixar has some pointless sequences that seem like they work better for the trailer than the actual film, like Carl descending the stairs on an electric chair system, which is a protracted scene of Carl sitting and his chair going slowly from top right to bottom left of the screen.
What the movie has going for it - outside a very Disney sense of schmaltzy "heart" - is a character who is more likable than I anticipated. Carl makes the movie - in fact, I loathed Russell for his canned sense of childish selfishness used to motivate Carl at turning points in the movie - and he is an interesting and viable character. Having lost his wife, he is a reasonable hermit and he is quite well-conceived. When Carl finds the Spirit Of Adventure, he becomes the boy in the movie and that is refreshing and fun. Moreover, he is not a curmudgeon the whole movie; the opening sequence makes him emotionally realized and funloving in a way that viewers instantly empathize with him.
The animation is good, though it is somewhat limited by Pixar's obsession with one style of person for their human models. Still, they pull off a few cute moments like the way the clouds Carl and Ellie look at all turn into babies. They also pull off a wonderful sense of tension in chase sequences, though the movie is entirely family friendly with dogs all clearly surviving huge falls and explosions. There is enough movement to keep little children entertained and enough depth to keep adults from being miserable through the movie, save that the themes of the movie are often about loss and missed opportunities, which are more likely to depress adults.
But the character arcs are predictable, especially as more information is given about Russell. Abandoned by his father, he looks to Carl as a fatherfigure and Carl's journey is to rise to that. The character arcs here are entirely predictable. The dialogue is generally good and the writers get some real laughs from all of the dialogue given to the dogs. I think, though, the only other time I laughed in the movie was when a frog mimics an alarm clock in South America.
And that is why Up won't have the leg some seem to be predicting for it. This is a largely depressing movie and it is thematically more heavy than its title suggests. Sure, there is movement and energy, but largely it is about a man giving up the dreams he can no longer live with the person he wanted to and making new adventures with those he suddenly finds himself with. It IS better than I thought it would be, but it is not one children are likely to get excited about returning to over and over again and adults who have lived through enough death will want something more uplifting than this.
For other Disney works, please check out my reviews of:
Toy Story 3
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© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.