Up (review)

Fly Away Home

If there’s magic in them thar Pixar films, it’s not just the magic of supernaturally gorgeous animation and inexpressibly poignant characters and a touch so light that it turns the deeply profound into something ethereal. It’s that, Damn, do the Pixar wizards have a crystal ball, or are they just mystically prescient? Anyone with half a brain could see years ago that tough times were on the horizon, but how did the Pixar folks time it just right, especially with the looong production schedules these animated movies require, to get this cheerful and fantastical yet never unrealistically optimistic movie before our eyes just as we are getting desperate for a movie to hug us reassuringly? How did they know that a story about dreams deferred and ambitions reconsidered and making the best and the most of what you have was exactly the kind of thing we’d need at the start of what looks to be a gloomy summer of 2009?

There’s something both grand and cozy in the concept: An elderly man lofts his house into the air by way of thousands of brightly colored helium balloons, the kind you’d buy at the zoo or the circus to please a child. Carl Fredricksen (the voice of Edward Asner: Elf) is going to fulfill a dream that he and his wife, Ellie, now deceased, shared: to see the mysterious land of Paradise Falls in South America. And he’s going to travel there by floating house. It’s a wonderful clashing of two wildly opposing desires, for home and comfort, and for excitement and adventure, and it’s so gloriously and perfectly executed by Pixar-vet directors Pete Docter (Wall-E, Toy Story 2) and Bob Peterson (Ratatouille, Finding Nemo) — Peterson wrote the screenplay — that it would be churlish to call it implausible even if the film allowed any room for you to do so. The peculiarly effective Pixar magic in Up is that it doesn’t allow that. The moment that house rises into the sky, your heart soars with it, and knows that Yes, that is exactly right.

We know Carl by that point, thanks to an introductory sequence that fast-forwards us through his life with Ellie — they met as imaginative children — that may be one of the most moving 10 or 15 minutes of movie I’ve ever seen. And so that feeling of rightness springs from that, from knowing what it means to Carl. It means: escape from the many things that have been haunting him, not just memories but more immediate concerns that I won’t spoil for you.

Not that this is a spoilable movie. I could relate the entire plot and still it wouldn’t matter, because Up is all about the cinematic experience of it. (I must admit, though, that while I saw the movie in 3D, I’m not sure it demands that. But don’t miss seeing it on the biggest screen you can.) It’s about the luscious colors, and about the warmth and life the animation imbues its characters with and the sweetness with which it brings them together. For there is also Russell (the voice of Jordan Nagai), an eight-year-old Wilderness Scout, accidentally along on Carl’s journey. Which is what prevents Up from being purely about escape for Carl… and for us, too. If Carl’s adventure feels like pure fantasy, Russell grounds him, and the film, with his own issues.

There are dark moments here: the film earns its PG rating, and I have no doubt that some children, years from now, will talk about a few of those dark moments in the same way that we grownups today talk about Bambi’s mother and flying monkeys. But the cleverness and originality of Up is nearly boundless. For all that it does evoke The Wizard of Oz, especially with the storm that blows Carl and Russell and the house to the strange realm of Paradise Falls, as well as the cunning play on its “there’s no place like home” theme, there are surprises at every turn, too. In the plot, in the visuals, in the dialogue… some of which is so refreshingly novel that I couldn’t tell you anything about the rest of it, because the audience I saw this with was laughing so loud and so hard and so long that we all missed half of what was said. Dug the talking dog (the voice of writer-director Peterson) is surely the highlight. (If you’ve ever wondered what kind of sense of humor a dog would have, wait till you hear Dug’s attempt at a joke.)

When I wasn’t sobbing through Up because it’s so honest in how it wants to touch you, I was sobbing at how beautiful it is to look at. Or sobbing at how marvelously witty it is. Or sobbing simply with the relief of having my love of movies reconfirmed. This is a perfect movie in all ways. Don’t miss it.

Oscars Best Animated Feature 2009

previous Best Animated Feature:
2008: Wall-E
next Best Animated Feature:
2010: Toy Story 3

go> the complete list of Oscar-winning Best Animated Features

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