by Sam Juliano
A silent poetic montage that opens Pixar’s latest animated offering follows Carl and Ellie–two children who develop a close friendship that leads to marriage, bliss and dreams of travel and a far away paradise in the southern hemisphere. The sequence shows both the moments of triumph and adversity and in so doing chronicles the timeless life concerns of love, loss and the passage of time. But when Ellie gets sick and passes on leaving Carl to make a fateful decision, the film segues into a fantasy inspired consciously or not by Virginia Lee Burton’s Caldecott Medal-winning picture book The Little House, which presents the life cycle of a house being implanted by industrialization, and Albert Lamorisee’s beautiful French short The Red Balloon, which features a boy whisked up into the air by colorful balloons to attain a spiritual nirvana. It’s a priceless sequence, imbued with sweet poignancy that surely ranks among the best work done in any animated film, and it’s difficult to sustain. Yet, in large measure, Up doesn’t violate the precious delicacy of its celebrated opening, and utilizes a deft combination of humor, fantasy and adventure to produce what is surely one of the studio’s three best films. (WALL-E and Ratatouille are the others). Apart from the superhero-dominated The Incredibles, this is the only Pixar movie that features human beings in the major roles.
Most of Up’s narrative features the bonding and exploits of Carl (now 78 years-old and a lookalike of Spencer Tracy in the last phase of his life) and a young eight-year old wilderness scout, who is first rebuffed, but then becomes part of the picture as a stowaway hiding under the old man’s porch. As children and progressing through life Carl and Ellie has always dreamed of journeying to Paradise Falls, a “lost world” on the South American continent where their childhood hero, and explorer named Charles Muntz had embarked for but had never returned from. Economical constraints prevent this trip from ever materializing, and like an older man wanting to make a last ditch effort to realize a vacation that has always eluded him, Carl decides to execute his elaborate plan which seems more like something imagined by Jules Verne. After an altercation with a construction worker which necessitates a court hearing as a result of his refusal cooperate with the suffocating construction around his house, he is advised that a retirement home named Shady Oaks would be the best choice to spend his final years. At this point the film veers drastically from realistic fiction into Fantasy land, when his house (recalling it’s famous Kansas descendent) is whisked up into the air on the strength of hundreds of balloons that are anchored by chords that run down to the chimney’s fireplace.
Needless to say the old man becomes attached to the precocious boy and they find the elusive utopia after various death-defying adventures that include the obligatory close call with the MIA Muntz, who much like Joseph Conrad’s dementia-beseiged Kurtz in “Heart of Darkness” is searching for a mythical figure, which in this instance is a tall, colorful toucan-like bird named Kevin (who had bonded with the young boy Russell) whom Muntz claims he had set out to capture over 50 years before. He is aided by a pack of mean dogs who are equipped with special collars that allow for vocalization of their thoughts.
Two of the film’s most magnificent set pieces are surely the house nestled against the edge of a cliff overlooking the majestic falls, and the hair-raising antics when the old man and boy assume control of the “zeppelin” transporter previously navigated by the defunct Muntz. The film concludes with the same powerful emotional content it began with as Carl thumbs through his beloved wife’s scrapbook, and discovers all the photos that define their life experiences, and a personal note El lie wrote to him before she died. It’s tear-inducing.
The film’s co-directors, Pete Docter and Bob Peterson display visual imagination throughout, and in addition to the aforementioned literary and cinematic influences, one recalls Werner Herzog’s Fitzcaraldo in the South American nature sequences, and in the dramatic configuration one is reminded of the story arc of the recent About Schmidt with Jack Nicholson. They play things safe of course, and resist edgier options, including a more downbeat ending. But one could argue that the film’s bittersweet context doesn’t require that kind of dramatic overkill, as enterprising and unique as it may come off. The talented Tom McCarthy contributed the witty (often acerbic) script, while the grand and colorful cinematography was helmed by Dennis Lim. The hues were unusually vivid and perfectly saturated, especially in the balloons and in the textures of the exotic locations and animals. Again, composer Michael Giaccino has written a marvelous score that works best in the poignant bookends, but nearly as well in the more frantically-paced segments involving the flight and arrival at the falls.
Pixar has reached the zenith of what can be accomplished with animation both in its exquisite compositions and the humanity it has imbued its characters with. While for many it brings to mind a sense of deja vu, it’s a singular achievement where artistic elements are informed by the deepest of philosophical concerns: the passage of life. Even while targeting its primary ,juvenile audience, Up broaches the things that in the final analysis mean more than just about anything else. It’s release is a joyous call for celebration.
Final Rating: * * * * * (highest rating)
Note: I saw “Up” on Saturday, May 30th at the Edgewater multiplex at 2:30 P.M. with Lucille and the five kids after an earlier screening of the horror film ‘Drag Me To Hell’ in the same place. That film, usually good for its genre, rates 4/5, although it scared the living daylights out of the kids. They all liked ‘Up’ but probably couldn’t appreciate it as much as an adult.