Posted by Marc Hodak on July 5, 2009 under Movie reviews | Be the First to Comment

Pixar’s secret to their dominance over other movie studios:  their films tell a good story.  Other studios offer great acting, as does Pixar.  Other films have great cinematography and graphics, often good enough to match Pixar’s spectacular animation.  But Pixar’s movies have to appeal to the imagination of kids, and they do so by telling imaginative stories.

As with other Pixar films, Up begins with a novel back story (think retired superheroes, as in the Incredibles, or the desolation of Earth via hypercommercialism, as in Wall*E), before getting to the real story.  Up begins with 10-year old Carl worshiping an adventurer named Charles Muntz who adorns the silver screen in the film’s alt-1930s.  Little Carl then meets little Ellie, who quickly pulls him into her vivacious, adventurer’s fantasy life, and then into an adult life, highlighted by a shared dream of going to Paradise Falls, South America, as well as the more mundane dream of raising a family together.  In 15 minutes, we see Carl and Ellie’s whole life which, alas, ends with neither children nor exotic travel.

The real story is how old man Carl decides to escape his retirement home destiny, and belatedly fulfill his promise to Ellie by flying their house to Paradise Falls using thousands of balloons.  Carl is unexpectedly joined by the young, fabulously obese Wilderness Explorer, Russell.  (There is nothing functional about Russell’s obesity in this story, which makes the device curious given Pixar’s target audience and PC morality.)  At first blush, Russell echoes the youthful explorer spirit possessed by Carl about six decades years earlier, now rekindled.  But Russell’s story turns out to a bit different.

Warning:  Spoilers under the fold.

While Carl was overcoming a sense of having failed Ellie, Russell turns out to be driven by a sense of missing his father.  The genius of Pixar is that they open up these voids very deliberately and subtly until they become a background in the film.  At the end of the adventure involving the boy, a colorful, flightless bird, talking dogs, and a dirigible, Carl finally realizes that Ellie didn’t feel that he failed her at all.  In fact, she considered their ordinary life to be an adventure.  (Tess cried.)  Russell and Carl, naturally, end up filling each other’s voids for a father and a child.

While the movie was splendid in so many ways, it fell short in several.  My biggest problems with this movie involved the reintroduction of Charles Muntz in the middle of the film as a foil for Carl and Russell.  I was disappointed with how suddenly the subtleties of relationships in this film got tossed out the window, like Russell’s GPS, when it came to Muntz.  The film could easily have explored the pathos of Muntz’s predicament, and how his unfulfilled dream conflicted with those of the other characters.  Instead, Up uses this encounter for a quick plot twist that turns into good versus evil.  Did the writers run out of time under an animation deadline?

The movie also embedded some bad math.  Muntz was Carl’s adult hero in the 1930s.  In their encounter later in the film, they both looked like old men of about the same generation.  Absent any explanation that Paradise Falls somehow fed a fountain of youth, by the time Carl is in his 70s, Muntz would have to be a centenarian; he wasn’t plausibly portrayed that way in the film.  I could let this nit in the timeline pass if the encounter with Muntz were absolutely necessary to the film, but it wasn’t.  Neither were Muntz’s talking (and cooking) dogs.  Since the writers bother to offer a technological basis the dogs’s speech, I feel it should have gotten me at least half way across the spectrum of suspended disbelief for a device that otherwise added so little to the plot.  I guess Disney couldn’t have let a film go out the door without talking animals.  I would have written Muntz and his canine entourage into the picture on very different terms, or not at all.

Despite these pitfalls, the movie was richly entertaining.  We saw it in 3-D, but what that gave us in visual depth it took away in brightness.  Fortunately, the movie’s character depth was enough to make the film worthwhile.

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