Friday, June 05, 2009

Pixar is 'up' to wonderous things again

“Up” is the perfect title for Pixar’s 10th feature length film because uplifted is exactly how you feel as the final credits roll. This is one of the most emotionally satisfying, engaging and funny films of this or any other year. “Up” is something truly special.

Starting in 1995 with “Toy Story,” the first entirely computer animated feature film, the Pixar animation studio has made consistently rewarding films with equal measures of heart and humor. Computer animation has since become the standard, but competing studios rarely match Pixar’s body of work in terms of character and story.

Their last three films in particular, “Ratatouille,” “WALL-E” and now “Up,” are on another level. As was true with its two direct predecessors, “Up,” is not simply a great animated feature — it is a great film.

“Up” starts by introducing two young wannabe adventurers named Carl and Ellie who worship explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). Young Carl makes a promise to take Ellie to Paradise Falls, a fictional region in South America.

In a beautiful, impossibly sweet and heartbreaking montage we are shown the arc of the couple’s life including the setbacks that prevented their trip and ultimately Ellie’s death. It is an amazing few minutes and hooks you for the rest of the film. From that moment on you are deeply emotionally invested in Carl.

Carl (Ed Asner) is left a grumpy widow and retired balloon salesmen, who when threatened with a retirement home uses thousands of balloons to convert his home into a flying house and sets off on the adventure he promised to take. When that house first lifts off there’s a genuine sense of wonder and magic that is so rare in modern cinema.

Along his trip Carl keeps picking up companions. First is Russell (Jordan Nagai), a boy scout that was unwittingly on his porch during lift off. Once they arrive in Paradise Falls they are joined by a prehistoric bird dubbed Kevin and Dug (Bob Peterson), a dog that thanks to a special collar can speak. Dug is part of a pack of talking dogs, but not all of them are as nice as Dug.

Many films, both animated and live action, have had talking dogs, but what is refreshingly unique and funny about the dogs here is they still speak with dog logic. They are easily distracted by squirrels and tennis balls.

Carl and his comrades also encounter the long missing Muntz, but he isn’t what he seems. It may appear as if I’ve revealed a lot of the plot, but there’s so much more. The plot has some predictable elements, but it is in the execution and details that the film soars. Directors Pete Docter and Peterson create moments of striking imagination and surprising invention. It wouldn’t be fair to cite specific examples because they deserve to be discovered on their own.

What makes this more than just an adventure story is the characters. You will truly grow to love and care about Carl, Russell, Kevin and Dug as if they were flesh and blood characters. Your humanity is thrown into question if the film doesn’t at least make you tear up a little.

The film is by no means a total downer. The film has laughs both big and small, but the humor is mined from the story and the character rather than the pop culture references that often over populate other animated features.

The voice work, though limited, is splendid. Asner is wonderfully gruff as Carl and he allows for nice shading of the character as his inner childhood adventurer returns to the fore. The dynamic that develops between Carl and Nagai’s Russell is sweet and sincere. Plummer also provides a full bodied voice performance although he hits entirely different notes than Asner.

Some younger viewers may grow restless as this is more character driven than gag driven. I heard lots of kids asking questions in the theater I was in, but they were clearly involved. I’m sure “Up” will be a film watched repeatedly by kids on DVD and that parents will gladly and willingly watch it with them.

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