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Up / **** (PG)Posted Friday, June 5, 2009, at 12:07 AM
Disney/Pixar out do themselves again with the best family film you'll see this year in "Up".
I think I've finally figured out how Pixar Animation Studio can so consistently turn out the best quality filmed entertainment in American cinema at the moment. They make films for adults and children. What's more, they aren't afraid to treat the kids like adults, nor are they afraid to treat the adults like kids. Kids can enjoy a mature story that operates on levels they can relate to, and adults can be swept back to childhood without being insulted by childish pandering.
While "Up" is the first official release of the Disney*Pixar partnership, it comes as the 10th film the two studios have released in collaboration with each other. After nearly 15 years of making movies together, their creative juices don't seem any more worn than they were when "Toy Story" became the first feature-length entirely CGI animated movie to be released. Many saw last year's "WALL*E" as a height the studios couldn't match; but with "Up", they have.
The movie begins on a sad note. We meet Carl Frederickson as a child, awed by the newsreels at the movie theaters--ah, if not for the 24-hour news cycle we might still have the pleasure of gathering our news in such a grand format. The big news is that explorer Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer, "Inside Man") is returning to the wilds of South America in his Spirit of Adventure dirigible to prove that a giant bird skeleton he says he found there is real.
On his way home from the theater--while pretending to be the famous explorer--Carl meets a girl who will become the love of his life. Ellie is perhaps an even bigger fan of Muntz, and the two make a pact to go to South America one day. As they grow older together, their travel plans keep getting put on hold; and before he knows it, Carl has grown old and alone once again after the passing of Ellie. That's the sad part, but what a grand adventure it will lead to for the old geezer.
Ed Asner ("Elf") provides the voice of the curmudgeonly old Carl, who remains in the house where he met his Ellie even though a city of high-rises has grown up around it. He delights in torturing the "suits" who desire his land and in sending the local Wilderness Explorer, Russell (Jordan Nagai), on "snipe" hunts. But at the end of the day Carl is alone. When forces determine it is time for him to leave his domicile, he chooses another option and ties thousands of helium balloons to it to sail it down to South America. Poor Russell becomes an unwitting stow away.
"Up" is one of those gloriously joyous stories that you want to just keep on telling once you've started, but I will save the rest of it for you to discover on your own. However, permit me to discuss one of the amazing minds behind the Pixar curtain and this movie in particular. Director Pete Docter's work seems to embody one of the best ideals of the Pixar philosophy. Docter co-wrote the stories for "Toy Story", "Toy Story 2", "Monsters, Inc.", and last year's spectacular "WALL*E". He also directed "Monsters, Inc." All of these stories are fantastical tales about make believe lives and worlds that don't actually exist. Yet all of these stories are rooted in our own humanity. Docter's toys and monsters suffer the same failings of human individualism and survive the same bonds of friendship upon which we base our own survival. His child-like robot, WALL*E, shares our best qualities of curiosity, the yearning to explore, and loyalty in love.
Perhaps what allows these non-human characters to strike such a resonant chord with movie audiences, beyond their fundamental human qualities, are their very specifically observed human behavior and mannerisms. While "Up" marks Docter's first story with human characters in the spotlight, it's his attention to those human qualities that bring his animation to a level far superior to so many animated stories. Take the romance and life of Carl and Ellie for example. For a cartoon to take on the entire lifetime of a shared love is an extremely ambitious task, but Docter manages it by capturing those moments that we may not experience in love but dream of from the moment we are aware of the concept of a deep shared love with another person.
There are moments of serendipity and moments of realization, like when the couple sees shapes in the clouds together and Carl realizes that Ellie is only seeing babies. There are moments of deep heartache, such as when they are silently informed that Ellie cannot have children. Some may feel moments like these are too much for children to fully comprehend, but the essential human experience is there and translates as if it were our own lives these cartoon characters are experiencing.
Yet "Up" is also as pure a fantasy as any of Docter's other credits. Carl and Russell fly a house to South America using helium filled balloons and we never once question the validity of such impossibility. Once there they make two friends--one a dog, the other a giant bird. We accept these unlikely bonds because this is fantasy and the animals are rich in the animation tradition of human-like qualities attributed to animals. Somehow Docter never betrays the line drawn between these characters as animals and the humans.
The dog is named Dug (voiced by co-director and screenwriter Bob Peterson, "Finding Nemo"). Never has a dog's name fit so indubitably. Dug has been fitted with a collar that is programmed to translate his thoughts into words. A dial allows for the language setting to be changed, but Dug would prefer it if you left that dial alone. Who among dog owners hasn't imagined the dialogue you might have with you own dog if they were able to speak your language? My wife and I have practiced interpreting our dog's thoughts for years. However, the capability of speech doesn't make Dug entirely human. His sentences are often interrupted by the thought that he might've seen a squirrel, and everything stops for squirrels.
There is really no way for me to express in an analytical review just how wondrous the movie will make you feel. All I can really do is assure you that no movie you see this year will make you feel as warm and happy as this one will. No other movie will touch your heart in the same loving way. "Up" isn't a movie you want to read about; it's one you need to experience.
"Up" is currently playing at Marshall Cinema.
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Andrew is a professionally trained actor and stage director. He was a reporter for the daily newspaper The Marshall Democrat News. He has been critiquing film since Mr. Lucas released the first of his "Star Wars" prequels in 1999. His reviews can also be seen at his blog site.