02 June 2009
No one in the history of film—not an actor, director, writer, studio or production company—has a track record to match that of Pixar Animation Studios. Ten feature films, 10 huge successes, racking up nearly $5 billion (and counting) in worldwide box office grosses and near-unanimous praise from critics. They should give the Academy Award for best animated feature to Pixar as soon as it releases a new movie—no one else stands a chance.
Feature No. 10 is the newly-released Up, perhaps the most unlikely animation blockbuster yet.
Up tells the story of Carl Frederickson, of how, as a young boy, he meets Ellie and they bond over their shared admiration of the famous explorer Charles Muntz (voice of Christopher Plummer). We see their life together in a stunning, heartbreaking sequence (accented by Michael Giacchino's tender score) full of more love, joy and sadness than most other movies fit into their entire running times.
Carl and Ellie dream of following Muntz to Paradise Falls in South America, but life gets in the way and Carl (Edward Asner) eventually finds himself a lonely widower living in the same old house while a city has sprung up around him. As a tribute to his late wife, he decides to finally take that trip, though he sets off by unusual means—tying hundreds of balloons to his home and flying it south.
His dream vacation becomes something less than that when he finds a stowaway on his front porch, 8-year-old Russell (Jordan Nagai), a Wilderness Explorer looking to earn his "assisting the elderly" badge.
The real adventure begins when they reach South America, their destination in sight. Russell befriends a giant, colorful bird (whom he names Kevin), and a dog named Dug (Bob Peterson), equipped with a collar that speaks his thoughts, adopts Carl as his master. Dug is the laughingstock of a pack of canines, all of which speak through their collars, working for a master with not-so-good intentions.
It's hard to say much more about the plot. Sure, there is danger, a narrow escape or two, and an endearing sense of humor (from Dug, in particular). Up, though, is more about ideas and themes than action—coping with the death of a loved one, loneliness and the adventure that is life.
This is heavy stuff for an animated movie, but it never weighs down the Pixar team. Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.) takes the lead here, with Bob Peterson (co-writer of Finding Nemo) handling the screenplay duties and serving as co-director.
It helps explain Pixar's success when you see that multiple members of the top of the studio's creative team have their hands in each feature. Docter, for example, has story credits on WALL-E and both Toy Story movies. Pixar is a director-driven studio, and its directors are proving to be true artists who have grown more daring and artistic as the studio has become more and more successful.
Up is Pixar's first feature presented in 3D, though you might not have a theater near you with the capability to show it that way. It's not necessary, however; to me, 3D is a marketing gimmick more than anything else. I saw it in standard 2D and still marveled at the beautiful visuals.
More importantly, 3D doesn't tell the story—the backbone of any quality film. Up has a great one that holds up no matter how many dimensions are used. WALL-E remains Pixar's pinnacle, but Up isn't far behind.
(Rated PG for some peril and action. 96 minutes.)