Up | Animated | rated PG (MV) | starring the voices of Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer | 1:36 mins.
With land developers threatening to seize the home he shared a life-long love with his late wife in, elderly Mr. Fredrickson (VO Ed Asner) ties thousands of balloons to the chimney and lifts the house into the air, escaping in his makeshift air ship to Paradise Falls, which was a dream vacation for he and his wife. With a precocious young Wilderness Explorer, Russell, along for the ride, Fredrickson encounters an otherworldly adventure that will challenge his entire existence.
Pixar has always been the studio that pushed animated movies further than the ever have been pushed into the realm of adult entertainment. Up is arguably the top of that hill. In Up the adult themes aren’t presented in metaphor behind slapstick action and kid friendly jokes, they are pushed right out into the forefront with a hero who is an elderly man in a story about loss – both of love and of dreams. The movie tugs at the heart-strings early, but does so effectively. Pixar knows it’s better to imply something than to lay into it for a sappy effect. The result is the first 10 minutes or so of the film are some of the more dramatic you’ll see in animation.
It’s a rock solid set-up to what becomes a classic adventure film with several bits of business with that classically Pixar imagination. The high flying action is a lot of fun and the movie is funny, but before long it starts to wobble around on top of a pile of it’s own nonsensical creations and it almost – almost – collapses. It takes Herculean strength to keep the plot of Up moving forward. Through sheer bizarre creativity they lunge toward one new, weird revelation after another whenever the premise has written itself into a conflict-free corner. The result is one strange film.
And that’s really my major problem with Up. The conflicts in it, the motivations for each action set piece and driving force of the entire 3rd act (which I will not divulge here because I can still recommend it), feels contrived. Events in the movie do not have to happen the way they happen, when they happen. Characters make sudden turns, priorities are shifted, frustrating mistakes are made and basically the movie jumps through logical hoops to bring the story to the otherwise thrilling Pixar action finale. Up lacks the smooth flow of their previous films and logical inconsistencies (like the appearance of Christopher Plummer’s character) will have audience members scratching their heads. Up could have used a few trips back to the writer’s room.
Another thing is the setting. The wonderful flying house premise is abandoned all too quickly, with the house landing low to Paradise Falls and our heroes spending the rest of the film walking it along the ground. Pixar has been known to create beautiful, intricately detailed worlds, but most of what we see in Paradise Falls is a cold, rocky, barren landscape. It’s not quite the animation cop-out that is Ice Age but it’s pretty bland.
Once you get beyond the original premise, the movie sticks shockingly close to the Disney formula. In one case it’s great inspiration, as they find a funny way to bring in the usual “talking animal” sidekick into the film with a dog named Doug who wears a thought translating coller. It sounds like a one-joke idea, but the dog jokes in the film are hilarious exactly because they don’t personify the dogs. They sound like you’d imagine dogs would sound. In another case it falls flat. I couldn’t stand Russell as the annoying precocious kid. He single-handedly personifies two of the problems with the film. 1) the artificial conflicts, as his mistakes and stupidity create just about all of them and 2) he is too much of a cartoon character. So much so that he, along with the other cartoonish elements, tug at the real world tone established early. True, Russell is given a backstory which is effectively sad because of, again, how subtle Pixar touches it, but it just seem like set-up for an obvious solution.
It may sound like I’m just beating up on Up. A fun bomb spoiling the party of a kid’s movie. Pixar has set the bar pretty high for all ages and it’s hard to not be critical when their latest effort doesn’t clear it. But the movie IS quite a bit of fun and when it threatens to get too whimsical, they know when to bring it back down to reality. You could call that disjointed. The ultimate story of rejuvenation is very satisfying. They get a lot of mileage out of the dog jokes and old jokes and just when you think it’s gotten too completely off the wall – boom – it hits a dramatic touch home that saves it. It’s a good, but flawed film proving that Pixar working at half capacity with a bumbling script still has the cinematic craftsmanship and heart-on-their-sleeve honesty to produce something better than the junk churned out by PDI and Dreamworks on a regular basis.