Pixar’s last two films, Ratatouille and Wall-E, were the kind of wonderful, transcendent animated films that Hollywood rarely sees. Their latest, Up, doesn’t quite reach those heights. Writer and director Pete Docter previously helmed Monsters, Inc. for the company and wrote the Toy Story films; co-writer and co-director Bob Peterson wrote Finding Nemo.
Up isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s about on a par with those films. The film opens with some wonderfully recreated 40s newsreel footage of Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer), explorer-adventurer who travels the globe in a giant mansion-zeppelin. He returns from the mysterious jungles of Paradise Falls, South America with stories of a fantastic creature – and evidence in its dinosaur-like skeleton.
When scientists disprove Muntz’s claims and publicly shame him, he takes back to the jungle, this time vowing to bring back a live specimen. We’ll hear more from Muntz later on, but in that 40s cinema audience watching his exploits is a young Carl Fredricksen. Carl is eventually voiced by Edward Asner, but for the first ten or so minutes of the film he’s completely silent.
His love of adventure brings him to the talkative Ellie, who shares his passions: they dream of travelling together to Paradise Falls and in a montage that spans 60 or so years, get married, try unsuccessfully to have children, and grow old together until Ellie dies. Heavy stuff for a kids’ film, but Pixar has never pandered to its younger audience.
These early scenes are the best Up has to offer, nostalgic and endearing and quietly touching without becoming overly sentimental. After Ellie’s death, we see Carl in his city home, right in the middle of a construction site.
If you’ve seen the trailer or advertising materials for the film, you’ll know what happens next: Carl and his house take to the sky under the support of thousands of helium-filled balloons as he finally travels to the place he and Ellie dreamed of.
Tagging along for the ride is stowaway boy scout Russell (Jordan Nagai), who wanted to aid Carl and win a “helping the elderly” badge to complete his master explorer status. Carl and Russell eventually do get to Paradise Falls, where they run into Muntz and talking dogs and yes, the fantastic creature. A lot of the joy in the film is discovering the oddball places the script takes us to.
Up is, at heart, an old-fashioned adventure serial, a badge it wears proudly on its sleeve. It’s also one of two problems I had with the film. Here’s a cliffhanger adventure and the main characters are two old men, a young boy, a pack of dogs and a friendly creature, all of which are frequently put in scenes of peril.
It’s a nice contrast to your usual adventure, and things never get too intense, but I was eventually put off by all the scenes of these weak (not really weak, but weaker than usual) characters getting shot at and dangling over ledges and hanging off a rope miles in the air. Maybe it’s my own fear of heights.
Someone once mentioned to me that they found Ratatouille too violent for a kids’ film, to which I scoffed; but in Up, I can almost – almost – see it. My other problem with the film is that the sentimentality eventually becomes a tad too obvious – at least in direct comparison with the beginning of the film, and with Rataouille and Wall-E, which were more grounded in their specific characters.
Here, Carl was never able to have kids, and Russell’s father is rarely around, and we know exactly where their relationship is going, few surprises along the way. But to compare Up to Pixar’s last two masterpieces is almost unfair.
Suffice it to say that the film lives up to the studio’s usual standards, and represents a considerable step up from the animated films produced elsewhere in Hollywood (though this year, Coraline should give Pixar a run for its money).