***/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras N/A
screenplay by Bob Peterson
directed by Pete Docter
by Walter Chaw There's still something breathless about Up, but I wonder if the Pixar formula isn't starting to show its seams now in its second decade of producing masterpieces--if there's a lack of freshness here in its familiarly exhilarated, cozily excited spaces. None of that fatigue is in evidence in the film's miraculous, wordless prologue, however: destined to compete with the opening-credits sequence of Watchmen as the single best stretch in any film this year, it establishes character, motivation, story of place, and sense of time without leaving a dry eye in the house. Shame the picture also peaks in these first ten minutes. It reminds of the wordless bit describing Jessie's abandonment in Toy Story 2, or the entire first half of WALL·E, and it suggests that Pixar is unparalleled in exploiting the possibilities for visual storytelling in its cavernous digital medium. The comparison of WALL·E to Chaplin is on point: When Pixar trusts the expressiveness of its mainframe and the beautiful, liquid clarity of its animation techniques, I don't know that there's ever been a better "silent" filmmaking collective. In their roster, it's arguable that they've only really faltered twice: once with the tedious Seven Samurai redux A Bug's Life, and again with the noxious redneck-baiting Cars. And while Up is nowhere near that bottom, it finds itself somewhere in the middle thanks to the peculiar ceiling to its invention (an entire Lost World and all you got is a giant bird and a talking dog?) and sentimentality that edges from sweet to mawkish. There are one too many cutaways to a dead wife's portrait and one too many winsome sighs as a plan made in childhood looms tantalizingly near.
Elderly Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) is cantankerous, sweet, and about to be evicted. Being a retired balloon vendor, he fills a few hundred of them to provide enough lift to fly his whole house away to a childhood fantasy of South America. A hitchhiker, little Asian kid Russell (Jordan Nagai, also, miracle of miracles, a little Asian kid), stows away with a payload of daddy issues weighing down his ebullience (another little Asian kid is featured prominently in Pete Docter's other film for Pixar, Monsters, Inc.--so, hurray for Docter), and the two are off, as they say, on an adventure in which they encounter a giant bird, a forgotten explorer (Christopher Plummer), and a pack of dogs equipped with collars that allow them to talk. It's a gimmick that leads to a series of great gags, like hero dog Dug (screenwriter/co-director Bob Peterson) getting distracted by the possibility of a squirrel (the first time is funny, at least--it keeps happening to sharply diminishing returns), or a late throwaway moment when the boys are counting blue cars and Dug--colour blind, of course--shouts out "grey." Tension comes when the explorer isn't what his newsreel legend cuts him out to be (though the film's not about the deflating of icons, as one post-script image has Carl and Russell going to see Star Wars) and begins to hunt Carl and Russell and the duo's new pet bird, Kevin. This leads to a few whiz-bang action sequences--betrayals, reversals, and lots of aerial acrobatics that have Dug at one point saying, "I would like to not be high now." Unfortunately, most of the film seems content to provide one melancholy note played in a rather dull cadence. Carl has promised his late wife to deposit their house at the roof of the world, as it were, and the tension of the piece until its third act revolves around whether or not he'll get the chance. As plot points go, it's not much and, more, it's a considerable departure from the stakes presented in Pixar's previous outings. It's not the fate of the world this time, it's whether a cranky old guy will become a lonely kid's surrogate dad.
If there's something to say about Docter's entries in the Pixar canon (besides the Asian kid thing), it's that he's interested in surrogate parenthood and, given the recent mania for adopting Asian children in the United States, it's maybe not even a moot thing to mention the race distinction. What's more difficult is that in a film like Up that, unlike Monsters, Inc., doesn't deal with any "big world" issues (remember the government-fed panic from contamination and imaginary threats in that post-9/11 kiddie flick?), this topic of orphaned kids and lonely grownups just doesn't have the same kind of stakes. It's gentle, so that instances of menace and violence--including the only conventional "Disney" ending for its villain in Pixar's stable--feel shocking. It's the only film I can remember from the company that doesn't try to understand its villain as, ironically in this, the studio's first 3-D feature, a three-dimensional character. The punchlines are more conventional, too, and not since Cars have I felt like a Pixar film had some surfeit of imagination--that there were opportunities lost and that, in the rush to make a summer release date, the script regrettably missed one more pass through the typewriter. The relationship between Carl and Russell isn't fleshed beyond their basic character types (Russell doesn't really develop at all), and the mandate to pay homage to Saturday matinee serials is perhaps taken too seriously. There are moments, of course, great moments, including that inaugural stretch (simply a master class in the art); there are moments of subtlety, moments of grace. But there are also too many dead stretches, too many obvious jokes, too many obvious resolutions to obvious situations where the smile freezes and the hope flutters. Up isn't a bad film by any means--it's actually a very good film, all things considered--but it's no less a disappointment. The bar is so high somewhere up there yonder in the blue.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Even more than the films themselves, if you've praised one Pixar Blu-ray you've praised them all. But, as other critics--such as our own Bryant Frazer--have already pointed out, many viewers (including this one) will be seeing Up in 2-D for the first time on Blu-ray, which creates its own set of expectations this 1.78:1, 1080p presentation uniquely surpasses. Virtual depth has been replaced by the figurative kind, yet in removing the overcast created by 3-D glasses, the instantly-increased vitality of the colours and contrast restores natural dimensionality to the image. Detail is more palpable, too: stuff like Carl's 5-o'clock-shadow, or the throbbing of Dug's ribcage as he pants, were ultimately overwhelmed in 3-D by all the games of perspective. Just as stunning is the 5.1 DTS-HD audio, although the mix itself is somewhat more reserved than Pixar has conditioned us to expect--or should I say differently scaled, since sound designer Tom Myers loves the little things, such as the squeal of Carl's hearing aid, or the rubbery swipe of balloons as they're set free. And because Michael Giacchino's treacly score for this movie makes me want to vomit, it's with an alas that I say it's as if the orchestra's right there performing in the room with you.
Joining the film on the first platter are the cartoons Partly Cloudy (6 mins., 1080p/DD 5.1) and Dug's Special Mission (5 mins., 1080p/DD 5.1), the making-of featurettes "The Many Endings of Muntz" (5 mins., 1080p) and "Adventure is Out There!" (22 mins., 1080p), a "Cine-Explore" feature I'm not equipped for, and of course the usual bevy of sneak peeks. Most viewers will be familiar with Peter Sohn's Partly Cloudy, which was attached to theatrical prints of Up. Set in a world where storks receive deliveries from godlike fluffy clouds, it zeroes in on the poor bastard who has to ferry baby alligators and prickly porcupines to their new mothers. Cute and legitimately thought-provoking--someone's gotta have the ugly babies--but finally a bit schmaltzy, it's nevertheless preferable to the straight-to-video Dug's Special Mission, one of those refurbished deleted scenes masquerading as a short à la BURN-E off the WALL·E DVD. "The Many Endings of Muntz" underscores the conceptual failure of the eponymous character, whom the filmmakers struggled to redeem before adopting the position that he's some sort of shadow self for Carl and therefore best disposed of in a hasty and violent manner. (Their logic seems predicated upon Russell, not Ellie, being the true voice of Carl's conscience.) "Adventure is Out There!" is all about how director Pete Docter commissioned documentarian Adrian Warren to escort Up's core team of artists to South America so they could set foot on real tepuis, uninhabited plateaux formed by centuries of erosion that served as the model for the film's Paradise Falls. Potentially more relatable than your average nature special in that a bunch of out-of-shape nerds take centre stage, it unfortunately lacks faith in its own footage of these miraculous landscapes, resorting so often to variations on "you had to be there" as to thwart vicarious awe. Trailers for Toy Story 3, The Princess and the Frog, and Santa Buddies launch on start-up, while additional previews for Disney Movie Rewards, Dumbo, Ponyo, and "Disney's Prep & Landing" (a Christmas special soon to air on ABC) fill out the selection of sneak peeks.
There are three more discs in this set. The second, a Blu-ray consisting of additional documentaries and games, choked every time I tried to load it; I blame my firmware and promise to upgrade soon. Disc 3 is the retail DVD release of Up, and Disc 4 is a DVD containing a Digital Copy of the film. Originally published: November 19, 2009.