With it’s bright colors, animal characters and a co-protagonist nowhere near puberty, it would be easy to dismiss Up as a kid’s movie. And while there are things in the film that kids will like and cause them to want to watch the movie repeatedly, there are themes, characterizations and nuances that will fly right over the heads of children and smack the adults right in the heart. Up demonstrates that the gifted film-makers at Pixar share something with Peter Jackson besides excellent production values and directorial savvy: They have never made a bad movie. The film features the voices of Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagal, Bob Peterson, Delroy Lindo, Elie Doctor and John Ratzenberger.
The opening act of the film tells us the story of Carl & Ellie Fredricksen and, like WALL-E, is almost devoid of dialog. It’s easy to forget that these characters were generated using computers. Their expressions and actions, underscored by Michael Giacchino’s brilliant music, yank us body and soul into the experience. The end result of this unforgettable piece of storytelling has us thoroughly understanding Carl’s bitterness in the wake of Ellie’s death, and shows the house in which he’s lived his entire adult life about to be consumed by corporate construction that surrounds him like Germans surrounding the Allies at Bastogne.
A young Wilderness Explorer named Russell comes knocking on Carl’s door. He needs his ‘assisting the elderly’ badge but Carl stubbornly refuses to be assisted, instead sending Russell on a snipe hunt. It seems that the men in suits building soulless skyscrapers are about to cart Carl away, but Carl sends his “NUTS!” missive and unleashes his plan, in the form of tens of thousands of balloons that carry him and his house away from the city and towards an adventure he and his wife always sought. Just when he thinks he’s free, however, he finds Russell on his porch, and the resulting story of their journey involves the best interaction between a crotchety old man and a boy coming of age since Gran Turino.
I haven’t even talked about the mad adventurer from Carl’s childhood, the intelligent and mischievous bird I call a snipe for lack of a better term – her name is Kevin – and the sheer awesomeness of Dug. But these things are best experienced rather than discussed. Like most Pixar films, high adventure and nail-biting action are delivered at the same time as powerful storytelling and in-depth character exploration, all wrapped up in that polished, animated package that has become the hallmark of their work. While other studios employ young, handsome and butch actors to headline their big action blockbusters, Pixar continues to buck the trend and go against the grain in a brilliant fashion. Carl Fredericksen joins WALL-E, Marlin the clown fish, Sully & Mike and Buzz & Woody in the veritable pantheon of Pixar’s unlikely but unforgettable heroes. Even Mister Incredible, himself a super-hero, is surprising in the way he transcends standard comic book fare to become truly heroic when he resolves to protect his family both from outside evil and the tension threatening to tear it apart. I’m wandering a bit away from Up, I know, but there is a pattern here. And it’s a pattern of greatness.
I honestly wasn’t expecting WALL-E to be topped so quickly and in such an incredible fashion. Don’t get me wrong: I still love WALL-E, from its science-fiction motif to its social commentary to its touching love story – between robots. But Up captures a pioneering sense of adventure along with demonstrating again the sheer power of the human spirit. Carl Fredricksen, a 79-year-old man, becomes slowly less tethered to the trappings of age as the story progresses. He demonstrates cleverness, a weathered but unbeatable sense of humor and that deep-seated desire never to give up on his dreams. As myopic he might seem at some points, the difference between him and his childhood idol becomes quite clear in short order. Russell could simply exist as a caricature of annoying adolescence, but he shows a surprising depth all his own, and his spirit is a lot like Carl’s in its unwillingness to be stifled or ignored. A lot of the tension between the two comes from having positive but differing goals to which each is equally committed.
Up juxtaposes real comedy with endearing character study the way District 9 juxtaposes blazing sci-fi action with gripping social commentary. Better writing and direction is very difficult to find. I could go on gushing about Up, but suffice it to say it should be on your Netflix queue already, if you don’t own a copy of the film yourself. It is absolutely fantastic. Up is not just a lot of fun and emotionally touching – it’s superlative storytelling and one of the best films of the year.
Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.