Monday, June 15, 2009
A Lovely Flight of Fancy. Up (2009): A Review (Review #11)
I find it curious that American filmgoers think animation is a purely children's genre. My theory is that people think animated films are the same as the cartoons they watched on Saturday morning. That is like saying Roots is the same as Homeboys in Outer Space because both of them ran for a short time on television and had African-American casts. There is a wide difference between Scooby-Doo and Grave of the Fireflies, between The Snorks (I am dating myself, aren't I) and Fantasia.
This might explain why parents took their progeny to watch UP, the latest Disney/Pixar collaboration, and why some people may avoid it. Truth is, UP is one of the truest films made this year: a beautiful, thoughtful, mournful and ultimately uplifting film (no pun intended). You realize this even before the film starts with the animated short Partly Cloudy. You see right away why Pixar continues to add films to the list of the greatest animated films ever made--when you can make people care about characters in a five-minute short, you can make them care in a full-length feature.
UP begins with an old-style newsreel telling the exploits of Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer), an explorer who is determined to prove the existence of a bird after the skeleton of the animal he brings back is declared a fraud. Muntz is still a hero to Carl Fredericksen (Ed Asner), a child who dreams of having similar adventures in the wild. Carl meets Ellie, a girl who shares (and even exceeds) his passion for Muntz-worship, and soon we see they marry and build a life together.
Tragically, Ellie dies, and their dreams of going to Paradise Falls together die with her. Carl, alone, continues to live in the house they shared while major construction goes around his house. He is interrupted in his mourning by Russell (Jordan Nagal), an eager Wilderness Explorer who wants to help Mr. Fredericksen in order to get his final badge, which is the "Assisting the Elderly" badge. Carl wants nothing to do with him or anyone really. An incident forces Carl to be sent to a retirement home, but on the day he is suppose to leave, he takes all the balloons he has and literally pulls up stakes to fulfill the shared dreams of living beside Paradise Falls. Unfortunately, he didn't count on Russell accidentally being carried away along with the house.
They do make it to the falls--the wrong side. Together, they trek toward Carl's goal, using their body weight to carry the house to the right side, only to be sidetracked by Kevin, a large bird whom Russell takes to his heart (but whom he doesn't quite realize is a female), and Dug, a sweet (albeit slightly dumb) dog with a talking collar that allows him to communicate with them. They discover Muntz is still very much alive...and unhinged in his quest for the bird. Carl realizes Kevin IS that bird, and that Muntz is no hero but rather insane and will stop at nothing to get at them.
UP is more than an adventure story with a fantastical premise. It really is about life, and how it goes on even when we lose people important to us. Each of the characters has a loss in their life (Carl his wife, Russell his father) and they find that while the people they would WANT to be there may not be, there are others who can be there for them. More than anything, UP continues in the Pixar tradition of making the most human of animated characters. They continue to show just how important it is to CARE about your characters. We CARE about Buzz and Woody. We CARE about Lightning McQueen and Doc Hudson. We CARE about Carl and Russell--we even care about Kevin and Dug. Although they are computer-generated, they have more emotion than John Conner in Terminator: Salvation or Logan in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Curious that animated characters have more life and heart than actual humans, isn't it?
Neither of those films, with their large budget and louder explosions, has the power of UP. When Carl takes his house up into the air, it is an extraordinarily beautiful moment on film, which is a rarity these days. If I had been alone and been true to myself, I would have been man enough to cry like I was about to in a beautiful montage late in the film. Carl is finally at the right side of Paradise Falls, and he begins to look at the scrapbook his wife kept, "My Adventure Book". Before, it had been a collection of her early life with space left over for "Stuff I'm Going to Do". He looks at it mournfully, but then he discovers these formerly blank pages are filled...filled with their life together. At the end, there's a message from Ellie, telling him their life together WAS an adventure, now go and find the next one. Even now, it's one of the most moving and beautiful scenes I've seen all year.
Not enough credit has been given to the beautiful score by Michael Giacchino. It's reminiscent of the music for another film that features flying balloons: Victor Young's Oscar-winning score for Around the World in 80 Days. I hope that the Academy will remember the music come nominating time. It seems clear that UP is the Heath Ledger of 2009--a sure bet to win an Oscar (Best Animated Feature). It just seems a shame that it might be overlooked for Best Picture. True, it is too soon to make those kinds of predictions, but UP is the best film I've seen all year.
Ultimately, UP is about the importance of human connection, the importance of love--both giving and receiving, and, to quote Peter Pan, about how "living is an awfully big adventure".