Up (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Pete Docter, Bob Peterson
viewed: 05/30/09 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

Pixar has been, since 1995’s Toy Story, the tops in the biz regarding digital feature animation filmmaking in the United States and doubtlessly the entire world.  Even with their weaker efforts, they are still miles ahead in the storytelling and development, visual aesthetics, character creation, and vision.  Their model is traditional narrative storytelling, much in the mold of classic Disney films, without the musicality, and certainly with their own modern voice, evolving away from the classic Disney model, creating a Pixar model that is pretty much digital feature animation’s current gold standard.  And I doubt that there are many that would argue that point.

There is more quality work that goes into their productions, and it’s clear that the leaders and primary directors there, Brad Bird (Ratatouille (2007) and The Incredibles (2004)), John Lasseter himself (Cars (2005) and Toy Story), and Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc. (2001)), the primary director here too, these guys are avid artists, historians, and rich thinkers, bringing a great more to every product that Pixar delivers than 100,000 Shrek‘s (2001).

Pixar shoots for the moon on their films, trying to deliver movie magic.  From WALL-E‘s (2008) touching the stars to the floating house lifted into the blue beauty of the sky in Up, they’re striving for something bigger, not just visually, but as a film that effects people, moves them, and makes them feel.  And it is this passion and artistry that really does raise Pixar above the others, much like the cloud of balloons attached to the house in this film.  And like the main character of the film, Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner), the small old widower, they can blow raspberries at the madding crowd below them if they had such a desire.

But, like WALL-E, Up strives for movie magic, shoots very high, yet ends up cloying a bit in its reaching for those heartstrings.  It doesn’t hit that magic point, but you can’t really fault them for trying.

The film is charming, and the characters are fun.  The best of the characters is the dog, Doug, who has a collar that allows him to speak his thoughts, goofy and occasionally unfocused as they are, but is really the star of the show.  The story is evoked effectively, telling of a life-long relationship between Carl and his now deceased wife, setting him up for his relationship with Russell, the abentee-fathered scout who ends up as a passenger on the house.  Carl strives to take the house and himself (the house sort of representing his deceased wife) to their long-fantasized trip to South America.  It was interesting that their vision of their fantasized “lost world” was the spitting image of the lost world in The Lost World (1925) which I’d seen at the Castro only a few weeks before.  (Sometimes seeing this many films has the pay-off of recognition that would be otherwise unnoticed.)

The adventure turns into a bit of a thriller when they encounter Carl’s childhood hero, adventurer Charles Muntz, a hero like the adventurer in The Lost World, who is scoffed at for his discoveries and heads back to the jungle to bring proof of his findings.  Unlike The Lost World, Muntz has been mired in the jungle for a lifetime, trying to catch a giant colorful flightless bird and has turned evil.  And the ruthlessness of Muntz seemed a bit more nasty than was necessary.  It seemed a bit out of tone with the rest of the film and the resultant thrills and action felt a bit forced.

But it’s quibbling to say that Up isn’t a five-star film, the magic was unachieved.  The film is fun and delightful, wonderfully realized, and much, much more rich than any of the other animated films due out, many of which seem to be all about aliens, looking more and more generic all the time.  Pixar makes a better film than others probably 99 times out of a hundred and Up is certainly among the majority.   Outside of the coming release of Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film Ponyo (2008) (due soon I hope), it’s doubtful that much will challenge it.  My opinion that Coraline (2009) is the best animated film since Spirited Away (2001) still stands true, as well.

Finally, I’ll say that the movie’s 3-D qualities were absolutely unnecessary and perhaps ultimate proof that this industry-driven fad needs to end.  There’s been this push to make all digitally animated films 3-D of late and it’s a waste of time and energy and a waste making all those 3-D plastic glasses.  Luckily, Up really didn’t cater to throwing yo-yo’s at the audience or have any corny blades or sharp objects poked out at us.  The kids both enjoyed the film, largely without their glasses on.  And I think they would have enjoyed it more if they hadn’t needed them at all.  I know I’m not alone in my opinion on this topic, but who knows.