Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Up

Pixar has done it again. It's become increasingly obvious that Pixar should be the only studio that draws an audience to its movies by its name alone. Up is a superior movie (let alone animated movie) that anyone who appreciates good cinema should see. It does have flaws, not the least of which is that Pixar still feels it has to entice an audience of children, which leads to false expectations. But it rises above those flaws, speaking to the human condition with whimsy and patience.

The movie opens with young Carl and Ellie sharing their love for adventure, embodied by the great explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). Together they share the dream of going to the site of one of Muntz's greatest discoveries, Paradise Falls. This common goal becomes the backbone to the love that grows between them and informs every decision the adult Carl (Edward Asner) makes. Carl and Ellie decide to save their pennies to eventually buy a trip to Venezuela, but the ephemera of everyday life get in the way—the car needs new tires, the house needs repairs. Their life together is beautifully rendered in a matter of a few minutes without dialogue, successive scenes showing the major turning points in their life—the wedding, the companionship, the heartbreak and how they overcome it. Finally they grow old together and eventually Ellie dies, leaving Carl alone and with the painful regret that they never accomplished the goal that brought them together in the first place. Heartbroken and on the verge of losing the home they built together, Carl puts together a crazy scheme: inflating enough helium balloons to lift his house off of its foundation and carry him and the memories of Ellie to Paradise Falls.

But just as the real world got in the way of earlier attempts to achieve his dream, it interferes again, this time in the form of Wilderness Explorer Russell. Russell is determined to get his final badge, Assisting the Elderly, in order to achieve Senior Wilderness Explorer status and thus entice an absent father back into his life for the award ceremony. Determined to assist Carl, Russell is accidentally taken up as the house leaves its foundation. Together they nearly reach Paradise Falls and then decide to drag the house the remaining distance. Along the way they pick up a giant bird and a talking dog as companions and end up being sucked into the failed dreams of Charles Muntz.

One of the really fascinating things about this movie is that it doesn't play to the clich├ęs. Carl and Muntz are bitter old men, discouraged at never achieving what they wanted from their lives. Russell is a young kid, not smarter than the old men, and prone to emotional outbursts of excitement, joy, and impatience. The bird is cute, but not saccharine and Dug is not the smartest dog in Muntz's pack. But all of them are determined and the most unlikely of clashes drives the latter half of the film. It becomes astonishingly clear that Pixar knows and loves dogs, hilariously so. The commercials that show Dug being distracted by a squirrel only typify the brilliant caricatures of the dogs.

Unfortunately, that commercial, filled with comedy and hijinks, misrepresents the movie. Folks, let me be clear: most kids under seven will not like this movie. It is sometimes very slow-moving (especially for a child's attention span) and the extended scenes of the joy and sadness in Carl and Ellie's marriage bore and confuse the younger audience (in our theater, several children wanted an explanation as to what was going on and wondered if their parents had brought them to the wrong movie). At its core, Up is about moving on, with accepting the pain and loss of the past and taking those experiences and memories with you as you start a new stage of your life. This is patently not something that young children will understand. True, as Carl learns to move on, with the gentle guidance of Ellie's spirit and love, some funny things happen: a house floats to Venezuela, he meets talking dogs, and he meets his hero. But he is so determined to meet his own goal, to extend the life he wanted to have, he doesn't see the characters around him who care for him getting hurt by his obsession. It's only when he can throw off the collar of his past that he finishes his grief…and more hijinks ensue, along with the promise of a more fulfilling life. Carl now interacts with the characters in his life and cares about them, instead of just living with a memory, no matter how sweet.

This synopsis leaves out subplots and jokes and action sequences, all of which is there in spades and lots of fun ("the cone of shame"!). I suspect that viewed at that level only, Up would be a curiously unsatisfying movie, seeming disjointed and jerky. But Carl is the constant, and while children may be baffled, they have relatively short attention spans and generally seemed pleased with the outcome. But, coming from Pixar, the real emotional punches are for the adults and, being a Pixar movie, it successfully makes its points while being so very entertaining.

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