Friday, May 29, 2009

Up (2009)

Much has been made about the lack of merchandising appeal in Pixar’s recent movies. I fail to see why that should be so. From where I’m sitting, I can spot on my desk a WALL-E figurine and a stuffed Anton Ego (the food critic from Ratatouille). These aren’t conventionally appealing characters – they aren’t cute with pretty colors and soft edges – but they work on a better, deeper level. They’re characters to care about, to identify with, and they come from really good movies. With Up the kind folks at Pixar Animation have continued their uninterrupted run of greatness by once again giving us a beautiful, funny, heartbreaking work of visual splendor (I can’t wait to see the toys). I don’t like it quite as much as WALL-E (my favorite movie from last year), but that’s a tough act to follow for anyone, and doesn’t make Up any less of a masterpiece. There are moments so evocative, so moving, that I found myself with tears in my eyes; there are also moments so fresh with visual inventiveness and whimsy that I nearly whooped in joy. This is an exhilarating, uplifting film.

I purposely tried to stay away from plot details before my viewing, so I won’t discuss any here. After all, everyone now knows the basic premise: an elderly man lifts his house with hundreds of balloons and takes off for South America, along with a little scout stowing away. The surprise comes from how the plot kicks in and the direction it goes from there, a direction that is both more and less predictable than you might suspect. The film unspools in surprising and delightful ways. Pixar is still working at a different level than their computer-animation competition. Watch the ways colors bounce and shift through the mass of balloons, sending dapples of primary colors across the sides of buildings. Note the realistic gut-flipping depth to the heights. See how director Pete Docter and his team have created characters that are immensely appealing and have real emotional heft.

Ed Asner plays the old man, who is harboring a long dormant spirit of adventure, and mourning a deeply affecting loss. Asner brings the right amount of hidden charm to the man who’s not merely a grumpy-old-man caricature; he’s an understandable man with doubts, fears, regrets and vast reservoirs genuine human emotion. This character has more weight than many live action characters. His sighs pierce the soul as he shuffles about, the weight of his loneliness causing him to drag his feet as he clutches his cane, drooping ever closer to the ground. But watch how his adventure puts a new spring in his step as Asner gives his voice a bit more of a bounce and the animators slowly straighten his posture.

And what an adventure this is. There are thrilling chase scenes that soar through the frame with graet energy and color mixed with a confident sense of weight and place. Pete Docter also directed Monsters Inc, with its great climactic roller-coaster sequence that takes the characters through a vast warehouse of closet doors that zoom by at incredible speeds while the characters go through disorienting loops and drops. Here, every chase is like that virtuoso sequence. The characters are literally tethered to this floating house (some subtle in-your-face symbolism) during these chases, and there is great inventiveness in the way they flip, dip, fly, and fall but (hopefully) catch themselves at the last second. The action is perfectly paced and elegant in its cartoony construction. There are great moments of generous whimsy as the movie plays out like a vast expanse of the imagination, but the whimsy is focused and controlled, playing perfectly within the rules the movie sets forth. This is a movie giddy with the act of creation. The filmmakers know they have a great story to tell and trust the audience will go along with them on the incredible ride they’ve designed. It’s not as tight a plot as Pixar has had in the past. In fact, the movie feels unpredictably adrift in the specifics, but always, oddly, comfortably predictable in the arc of the ride.

This is certainly no mindless ride. Unlike Monsters vs. Aliens, which used its high-concept plot to merely plug in a couple sequences of high-speed – but bland – visual frenzy, Up unfolds with patience and care, hitting character moments both big and small with ease and subtlety that allows the action pieces additional stakes. We care about these people; we care about their dreams and goals, their hopes and fears. Above all, we want them to succeed. I could indentify equally with the old man and the little boy. They reminded me of people I knew, people I know; they are who I was, am, and could be. The opening scenes of the film introduce us to the old man as a little boy (looking a bit like a young Roger Ebert) then reveal his entire life to date (until he looks vaguely like Spencer Tracy), and are heartbreaking and beautiful, simultaneously, in their immediacy and potency. In fact, Pixar expertly shows in minutes the impermanence, the fleetingness, of life that some films can barely show in hours. It’s not often that family films tackle these feelings, along with feelings of regret, loneliness, and the awful and sweet unpredictability of life. Even rarer, the family film that tackles them well.

Up is beautifully rendered in picture and perfectly controlled in tone. There are shots that rival Miyazaki for pure artful beauty, but this is also, like Miyazaki’s films, a blast, as signaled by (the always great) Michael Giacchino’s excellent score that bleats with childlike glee at the humor with a deep, soaring, undercurrent of respect. It’s a fun and exciting movie. There have been other movies so far this summer that have made my inner child happy, but only Up pleases the inner child and the outer adult in equal, even overlapping, ways. (Only Star Trek's come close). This is a nimble, mature, complex film of deep emotion and huge creativity. In other words, Pixar’s done it again, with a film that lands on the heart with a feeling of permanence.

Note: Pixar’s tradition of including a pre-feature short is intact with the inclusion of the delightful Partly Cloudy, a work of quick visual humor that expertly manipulates emotions. Also, the use of 3D in Up is fairly unnecessary. Feel free to save yourself a few bucks by seeing it in 2D.

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