Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Simpler way is UP

The opening of a new Pixar/Disney is always eventful. Commercially eventful that is. Not much is celebrated at the artistic eventfulness of a new Pixar movie.

There are elements that tend to repeat themselves throughout Pixar movies. That just happens to be the way they write. However they are less repetitive than other studios. Every Pixar movie has a plot different from the last, and they always demonstrate a willingness to try something new. There's something new to the plot of Up for sure.

Up tells the tale of Carl Fredrickson (wonderfully voiced by Edward Asner), a 74-year old widower with with limited social interests and an aversion to change (I can relate a few parts of Carl's physique and personality to my own grandfather). Carl's beloved wife, Ellie, fulfilled a part of Carl's life that was always shy, and both shared an interest in adventuring. However, they were never able to take their dream vacation to South America before Ellie's time came. After being threatened and then court ordered to leave his house of many years to make room for a growing city, Carl decides he must head to South America now, before his own time comes. Unexpectadly, Carl, a former balloon salesman, tethers thousands of helium ballons from his fireplace, and lifts the house from its foundation. Carl then pilots the house from there on, after which we realize the house represents Ellie in Carl's eyes. And that's only the first 10 minutes.

The Incredibles was Pixar's first feature to have all humans as the main characters. Up is another venture down that road. People will read this and think of the animal characters in the movie, but story-wise, the humans control all the actions. Up marks Pixar's first time having an eldery figure as the main character. It might have been done before to a lesser extent somewhere, but this is a major release today. Interviews with director Pete Docter have suggested an uncertainty to how young audiences will able to relate to a 74-yeard old man. But Mr. Docter and co-director Bob Peterson always seem confident, as I'm sure of the movie's writers and crew are. And besides, its a quiet truth that animated features are not just reserved for children, but for adults as well.

The whole story is based around relationship issues. Carl Fredrickson lost his beloved wife and closest companion (nicely illustrated four minutes into the movie, with minimal dialogue). He later meets a young boy scout, Russell (voiced by newcomer Jordon Nagai, and modeled after Pixar animator Peter Sohn), who is later revealed to have issues with his distant father. Then there's the bad guy, a nearly 90 year-old adventurer genius (nicely portrayed by Christopher Plummer), whose relationship with society (and the rest of the world) was damaged years ago, due to skepticism versus enthusiasm. Even the main dog character, Dug (played very lovingly by co-director Peterson), has master and peer issues, as he is the happy outcast in a group of dogs devoted to their paranoid genius of a master. I love movies that deal with developing relationships and regret over previous relationships. It may sound complicated to some, but it really isn't.

Pixar's movies are not complicated. These movies are coherent for sure. But Up appears to have a simpler plot compared to Pixar's last few movies. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Its good to relax. But Ratatouille and Wall-E are quite sophisticated in terms of plot (i.e. rats trying to integrate into the human world; a robot left alone on earth, yet ends up reaching out to humanity). I'm probably reaching too far, but that's how I see it. Up is a simpler tale of a widower wanting to fullfill something that is, in fact, possible.

There's a sense of mild child abuse in the movie, except its portrayed as accidental, so there's nothing to cry over. Russell, the boy scout who accidentally gets stuck on the floating house, finds himself in several dangerous situations throughout the film (I was reminded of moments in Rescuers Down Under and Jurassic Park). He gets dangled a few times from dangerous heights (always a movie favorite, even in fantasies), nearly gets injured by rabid dogs, and almost dropped from a flying durigable.
Does this bother me? No way. I'm just praising the new levels Pixar's writers have reached.

Design wise, there's really nothing new to the movie. Like all of Pixar's movies, everything is just as saturated as everything else, while delicately lit. That's not a bad thing at all, as it looks carefully constructed to suit the story. Its just that I had a discussion with a friend recently about how saturated all computer-animated movies look.

My biggest criticism (and so far only) is over the last few minutes of the movie. Its a happy ending, but I wasn't satisfied with it. It didn't seem original enough, and I guess I expecting some other things to happen. I guess I thought Russell would be convincing someone that he wasn't abducted by the crotchety old man. The rest of the story is great, and I just wish the end had a little more originality than Carl and Russell reliving something Russell shared with his own father.

That's it for Up. I will probably be seeing it again soon. Of course, that also means I will be seeing the new Pixar short, Partly Cloudy, directed by Peter Sohn. All I can say is that I was never big on the idea of babies coming from the sky. And I think this was by far Pixar's most disturbing short film. That may change, but that's how I feel now.

And we're back to seeing a trailer for next year's release, Toy Story 3. We can only wait and see if Pixar can pull a third one off, and without actor Jim Varney and writer/actor Joe Ranft. Still, Pixar got lucky with Toy Story 2, because they were very serious about it, so there may be nothing to worry about.


Anonymous said...

I thought Up was one of Pixar's best yet, not because the plot was more complex, but because the themes were much more challenging. How do you make a children's movie about an old man coming to terms with the death of his wife (and his own eventual death)?

And yet Pixar did it, with a lot of finesse. Sure, everything is kept strictly PG, but I was surprised at the degree to which Pixar didn't pull it's emotional punches.

Elliot Cowan said...

I thought Up was my least favorite Pixar film.
Mostly I thought it was boring and as subtle as a brick.

Emmett said...

Anybody ever get the feeling that there are too many people out there who are not saying everything they want to say? Every published review I have read has done nothing but praise Up. And yet, everyone I talk to personally has a varying degree of opinion surrounding the movie.

Sam, its good to hear from you. I agree that the theme is more challenging than usual for Pixar, but I still believe the plot and story relatively simple. Probably a bit more complex than Pixar's first few movies (Toy Story 1 and 2, A Bug's Life). Pixar's last few were a bit more complicated. Just sum up the movies in one sentence each, and tell them to someone who hasn't seen them.

Elliot Cowan said...

The problem with reviewers is unfortunately (I think) they're reviewing it's merits as an animated film, not just a film.
If the film had been live action, I suspect they wouldn't be quite so enthusiastic about it.