Up (2009) dir. Pete Docter
Voices by: Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer, Delroy Lindo
Though I admired “Wall-E” and “Ratatouille” the two recent and arguably best received Pixar films since “Toy Story”, I felt a sense these films wrang out every morsel of cuteness from the little robot and the little mouse to the point of tedium. With “Up”, newbie feature director Pete Docter pushes some of the same emotional buttons, but a more genuine characterization of his lead character, for me, results in the most satisfying Pixar film.
And I think it has to do with the human characters. The hero in the story is Carl Frederickson, the most sympathetic and endearing of all the Pixar characters. Docter takes his entire first act to tell us the backstory and conudrums of Carl. The film opens with a flashback to the 1920’s when young Carl was in awe of intrepid explorers like the dashing Lindbergh-esque airship flyer Charles Muntz who claims to have discovered a 'Paradise Lost' world in South America. We see Carl bond romantically with his lifelong partner and wife Ellie with a mutual dream of taking a similar journey to this unblemished world.
In a marvelous montage sequence Docter shows the life history of Carl and Ellie and how their dreams consistently got pushed back in favour of real world financial realities. And when Carl’s wife dies leaving him alone in his house, he suddenly finds himself lost without ambition. Before Carl is about to be sent away to an assisted living facility he literally breaks away via hundreds of helium filled balloons bringing him and his house into the skies. Little does he know, the chubby annoying boy scout Russell was on the porch thus bringing him along the adventure. Carl and Russell make it to Paradise only to encounter a nasty villain who threatens the preservation of this natural world.
Carl makes a great hero because there’s a genuine and well-defined life to the man. Docter’s beautiful crafted and edited encapsulation of Carl's life with his wife is a mini marvel. We’re reminded of the landmark dinner table scene in Citizen Kane, where Welles and his editor Robert Wise told the lengthy collapse of Kane’s marriage with only a small number of smartly edited shots. Though Docter’s sequence is longer, with more elaborate visuals at his disposal he manages to create and summarize an entire life, which becomes the dramatic foundation of the film.
Docter also manages to avoid the inherent clichés with his character. We expect Carl to be a curmudgeon, a jaded distrustful old man – much like Clint Eastwood’s character in “Gran Torino”. But Carl has more intelligence and reality-based reactions to his situations than a live action Walt Kowalski, and without sacrifice of inter-character conflict.
The film takes a turn for the childish in the second act when Carl and Russell make it to Paradise Lost. We’re introduced to a group of dogs who can speak using an electronic dog collar. Talking animals within the human world of the film seems more a ploy to satisfy the children in the audience, whom I could see getting bored with the adult-oriented backstory/setup. The adventures on the island are animal slapsticky stuff, but the introduction of Christopher Plummer’s antagonist character brings the joy and sense of adventure back for a rousing action finale.
The visual design is simple and clean, perhaps influenced by the Art Deco designs we see in the early flashbacks. The 3-D presentation was decent, a format which most certainly works best in the world of animation. If anything the polarized glasses dulled the brightness of the colours used in the film. And after 30mins or so I completely forgot I was watching 3D. I’m not sure this is good or bad – whether we’re supposed to be conscious of the three dimensions at all times, or whether it’s supposed to invisible to our eyes.
Therefore, I’d say either version, 2D or 3D, it won’t make a difference which presentation you see, the story will suck you in and immerse you completely in Carl’s life. Enjoy.