Sunday, June 07, 2009

Movie Log: Up

The critical consensus on Up, Pixar's tenth movie, seems to be that it has an immensely powerful first act but wanders a bit after that -- but I don't agree. It may be that I'm blinded by sentiment -- and I do admit that I had something in my eye a very unlikely number of times during Up -- but I found it a strong and mostly unified film. (The "villain" is a bit underdeveloped, but that's as far as I'd go.)

The last few years have been a bit uneven for Pixar, with the pure triumph of Ratatouille bookended by the derivative and bland Cars on one side and the mostly sublime Wall*E, which was handicapped by an intrusive theme and a silly ending. Up isn't quite as successful as Ratatouille, but it works at least as well as The Incredibles, and its flaws are less serious than Wall*E's. I'll have to see it a second time to definitely slot it in, but my initial impression is that it's one of the top-tier Pixar movies, along with the two Toy Story films and Finding Nemo.

As you may have heard from a million other places, the main character of Up is Carl Fredrickson -- he's about seven as the movie opens (in the '30s), but immediately meets the love of his life, Ellie, and then their life together is collapsed into a montage that lasts about five minutes and is one of the best, most moving pieces of cinema I've ever seen. (Wall*E had a similarly strong first act, but Up is Ginger Rogers to Wall*E's Fred Astaire -- it's doing the same kind of thing, but better, more quickly, backward and in high heels.) At the end of the montage, Carl is somewhere in his seventies, and Ellie is dead. Worse, his house -- their beloved house -- is the one hold-out in a construction project going at high speed all around him.

Ellie and Carl had always wanted to go to a hidden plateau in South America, but never managed to make it -- and, after Ellie's death, Carl looks to just want to die quietly himself. But, after an unfortunate incident with one of the construction crew, Carl is going to be sent to a retirement home. And so he attaches a huge number of balloons to his house -- he worked, all his life, as a balloon seller in a zoo -- and his house is pulled off of its foundations and into the sky. He's off to Paradise Falls, the name given to that plateau long, long ago by a '30s explorer named Charles Muntz, whose newsreels were what originally brought Carl and Ellie together.

(Yes, the balloon flight is impossible. But it's a wonderful, necessary impossibility, and it makes possible one of the most elegant and touching concretized metaphors I've ever seen later in the movie. And why on earth are we interested in fiction if we can't stand a little bit of the impossible?)

Accidentally along for the ride is seven-year-old Wilderness Scout Russell, who has his own issues -- his parents are apparently divorced, and he wants to get one last merit badge so that his father will come to the ceremony making him a Senior Wilderness Scout. Carl doesn't like Russell at first, but he does quickly take responsibility for Russell, and starts to take care of him.

So the two reach Paradise Falls -- or, rather, get into the vicinity of the falls, though on the other end of the plateau. Russell points out that they can walk there, towing the still-buoyant house as they go. And so they set off, and soon the rest of the movie happens to them. The spectre of Charles Muntz comes back into the movie, as does the creature that he came back to Paradise Falls to catch. (His story could be deeply tragic if it were the center of the movie -- Muntz spent his entire life, all alone, trying to prove that he wasn't a cheat and a liar, and we the audience know for certain that he wasn't, and we also know what happened to him by the time this movie is done.)

As usual in Pixar movies -- and in many kinds of entertainment -- Carl has to learn a lesson before his story is over, and he does learn that lesson. But he also learns to be happy again, and to look outward into life again. It's not just a joy to see a grouchy old man as the hero of a movie for families; it's a joy to see him grow out of being a grouchy old man when he has reason to do so. Up is a lovely, triumphant, touching movie -- I can't remember ever tearing up as many times during a movie as I did during Up. It was wonderful and special enough that we sat, my whole family and I, until the end of the credits just to stay in that world a little bit longer, which never happens. It's just a great movie.

1 comment:

Dave said...

It's interesting that the image used to sell this movie is of a house flying in the clouds, when the real story is of a man pulling his house on his back. It comes close to being a fairy tale in how fantastical the premise is. It's one of the darkest Pixar movies — certainly the darkest set-up — and pays off nicely, I thought, although it's mostly a series of vignettes once they arrival in the lost world. The characters of Dug and the bird stole the show. I've rarely teared up and laughed so much at a single movie.

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