Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
June 2009

The boy and the balloonatic

Pixar's dominance continues to rise'Up'

Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Pete Docter
Screenplay: Bob Peterson and Pete Docter
Starring: The voices of Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer, Bob Peterson, Delroy Lindo and Jeremy Leary
Rated PG / 1 hour, 36 minutes
Opened May 29, 2009
(out of four)

At this point, Pixar is almost making it look easy. Superheroes and talking fish too old hat? Fine - we'll give you a solitary robot on an abandoned planet, and present it with a silent-movie sensibility.

Not enough? You want a children's movie with, of all things, a grumpy old man as the main character and a house floating all the way to South America? Done and done. No sweat.

Pixar's status as a juggernaut remains undiminished. We can forgive the minor hiccup that was Cars - not only because the studio's track record is so consistent, but because it keeps getting better. Watching it churn out this kind of cinema year after year, it's like watching Tiger Woods play golf. DreamWorks can try as hard and expensively as it can, live-action filmmakers can try as hard and as expensively as they can, but the fact is Pixar is just better at making movies than they are.

In a way, as strange as it may sound, its films are almost an under-valued commodity. Everyone always says, "they're great for the whole family, kids and grown-ups alike," and they always make big money and they routinely win Oscars - you know, stuff that looks good on a promotional billboard. But the real point here is that Pixar has reached a special level of filmmaking.

Its early films were always good, sometimes great. But recent entries have grown exponentially in sophistication and artistry. As great as Pixar was for its first decade, I don't think any of its early movies - or many movies in general, for that matter - have reached the heights of WALL-E, Ratatouille, The Incredibles and, now, Up.

Like its greatest Pixar predecessors, Up is a rapturous anthem to humanity, in all its wonder and darkness. In turns elegiac and life-affirming, it explores all that makes our lives meaningful, for better and worse - the people we love, the dreams we have and perhaps share, the disappointments that linger, the events that cripple us or pick us back up.

The loveable old crank at the center of the film is Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner), whose great love, Ellie, has died, and who has spent his retirement in a self-imposed exile - either in his favorite chair or on the porch, rarely going farther than the mailbox. And where would he go, anyway? The old neighborhood is gone - his old house the last remaining vestige of what was, as a new, synthetic skyline gets built up around it.

Before we even hear Carl's voice, we feel like we know everything about him. In a classic example of the kind of virtuoso filmmaking that has come to define Pixar of late, we get Carl and Ellie's story in a poetic montage that seems equally inspired by the visual language of the old silents and the stylistic sensibilities of Woody Allen.

From their marriage to her death - with all the joy and sadness in between - we get all the background we need. The montage is such a simple technique, but is executed with perfection and astounding grace.

Carl and Ellie had a mutual hero when they were children - the great explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), who fled the states for Paradise Falls decades ago to prove wrong those critics who claimed he was faking all his discoveries. All their lives, they dreamt of traveling there. Life just got in the way.

Now, with his wife gone and their home about to be taken away, Carl is finally going to fulfill that dream - a bittersweet gesture, a way to say sorry, a way to say thank you, a way to say goodbye.

What he didn't plan for, of course, was the precocious Wilderness Explorer, Russell (Jordan Nagai), who found himself underneath Carl's porch when the house was lifted into the sky - courtesy of tens of thousands of balloons. Nor did he plan on being befriended by not one, but two animals once he gets to South America - one, a rare breed of bird that Muntz has been after for decades, and another, a bumblingly sweet dog, Dug, who speaks through a translating collar.

Up has such a sharp understanding of what makes us human that even during the times it paints in broad strokes, it seems honest. This is confident, expert storytelling, with hilarious asides and gags that pop up out of nowhere to perfectly punctuate a moment, and elements subtly juxtaposed for maximum effectiveness. Like the way we discover, in the early montage, that Carl worked the balloon stand at a local zoo - against the backdrop of a sadly ironic Paradise Falls facsimile.

Or consider the talking dog collars - that easily could have been a joke that ran its course after one scene. But with the way the filmmakers use it - in conjunction with how they stage certain key scenes, or with the relationships between the dogs themselves - the gag actually gets funnier as the film goes along.

The great Pixar films like this one succeed in ways in which others so often fail - the fact that they're animated is essential to their particular style, of course, but incidental to how well they do what they do. These are the full-bodied movies that everyone else tries to make every summer, with varying levels of success, or lack thereof. Up juggles a lot at once - at times playing like an Indiana Jones tale, at others adopting old-fashioned comedy stylings. It is at once an action-adventure, a screwball comedy and a human drama - and the best of all worlds.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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