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"Up": Thumbs Up, Mostly

by on November 10, 2009

Hey! My mom LOVES that game!!When was the last time you watched a film starring a senior citizen? Yes, there are a few out there (David Lynch’s The Straight Story springs to mind), but they’re pretty rare, especially in conventional Hollywood, which goes for “young and beautiful” 99% of the time. What’s even more rare is that Pixar’s Up treats its elderly protagonist with respect, rather than dumbing him down into a crotchety stereotype or a feeble, incapable pile of nothing. How refreshing.

Partly this is because we learn about the whole life of this old man (whose name is Carl) in the first ten minutes, thus fleshing him out more than if we just came in on his life at 70 right from the start. Young Carl dreams of being a world explorer like his globe-trotting hero, Charles Muntz. Carl meets a energetic tomboy, Ellie, a girl his age who is also interested in adventure, and the two are instantly friends. Of course, when they get old enough, they become more than friends, and are wed. What follows is a montage of their lives, from early ’20s to retirement age. While the montage is hardly a new cinematic device, the way it’s done here is poignant, sweet, and surprisingly heartbreaking at times, showing the ups and downs of married life. The wonderful score, which subtly changes to fit each scene, only adds to this mood.

Please let me in...Eventually, Ellie passes away and Carl is left alone in a house surrounded by city construction (a tribute to the Disney short The Little House). Through a series of unfortunate incidents, Carl is to be forced out of his house and into a retirement home. But Carl, having looked through his scrapbook and remembered a dream he and Ellie had to visit South America, has other plans, and fixes an untold amount of balloons to his roof and lifts himself out of the city. Little does he know a boy scout named Russell is hiding on his porch, and being that Carl is reluctant to warm up to anyone since his wife died, their team-up is strained, to say the least.

It’s around the time that the house lands in South America that things get a bit less innovative and a bit more conventional. The movie becomes a buddy picture, which we’ve seen from Pixar before (Toy Story, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, and to a lesser extent, Ratatouille). It’s the typical “odd couple” scenario, complete with scenes where one character snaps at the other. Not that this isn’t done well in Up, but it isn’t really new ground.

Another issue I had is that the breathtaking visuals when the house was flying mostly disappear. Instead, we get a long sequence of Carl and Russell on foot, slowly walking across rocky terrain. It’s not nearly as exciting, either visually or conceptually. Of course, things pick up at various points here and there, but for me, nothing beats the exhilarating sense you get from flying over cities and national monuments. I would’ve liked to see a bit more of that; it feels more magical and unreal.

The villain in the film is also a bit of a disappointment. I can see his purpose in the story, especially in symbolic relation to Carl, but he’s introduced halfway through the story, and as a result, the conflict he adds to the film (he wants to capture a rare bird that Carl and Russell just happened to pick up during their journey) feels like an afterthought. Also, he’s of the “megalomaniacal” variety, which makes sense given that he’s lived in the jungle by himself for decades, but that doesn’t make him particularly fleshed out the way Carl, by comparison, is.

Hi there! My name is Dug and I have only just met you and I LOVE you!However, whatever the main villain lacks, his henchmen make up for. Or, should I say, henchdogs. He literally has hundreds of dogs attending to his every need, including preparing dinner (and promptly eating said dinner if one’s food isn’t guarded). Most of them are just Storm Trooper-esque baddies (i.e., are just there to hinder the protagonists and don’t offer distinct personalities). But one of the dogs, Dug, is my favorite character in the film, which is ironic because all he can do is talk in simple phrases with the aid of an English translation collar, so you wouldn’t think there would be much to him. But I like his eternally cheerful demeanor when contrasted with the grouchy Carl, and it’s amazing how the animators closely mimicked the way a real dog would act for Dug’s performance. He’s adorable. And of course, Dug is the only dog in the villain’s pack to refuse to follow orders. I also liked the main villain dog, appropriately named Alpha, who speaks with a high pitched, squeaky voice because his collar is on the wrong setting. Good twist of the formula there. When I heard it the first time in theaters, I burst out laughing because of how unexpected it was.

The climax is also done well, taking place on a blimp. It’s not often you see such a setting for a final battle, but they pulled it off nicely. It goes without saying, but being high up only increases the tension. Still, without giving anything away, I have to say that I thought the ending with Carl and Russell was a bit head-scratching, like they didn’t wrap up a loose end when it came to Russell’s family. When you see it, you may understand what I’m talking about.

In the end, I enjoyed Up, despite its familiar elements. Many of my beefs with it are nitpicks. It’s not that I’m looking for flaws, but as Pixar hasn’t made a truly bad film yet, I hold them to a slightly higher standard. Some ingredients of Up were risky; if the whole film had been convention-defying, we may have had a masterpiece on our hands. As it stands, Up is “very good” (and certainly attention-holding), though not quite excellent.

Special Features
Oddly, despite it coming with four discs, the Blu-ray set can be breezed through fairly quickly. The first disc contains the film, including an optional visual commentary (wherein pictures are superimposed over the film while the director and others talk). It’s worthwhile, especially all the concept art and production photos we get to see.

GesundheitThe commentary is good, but it’s the 22-minute documentary on a pre-production trip to a real life tepui to gather visual research for the film that truly shines. Besides the amazing sights we see on top of this plateau, there were some amusing stories about what happened while they were up there. Furthermore, this sort of thing makes you appreciate the hard work the Pixar staff regularly goes through for their films; they don’t just guess on the little things, and their attention to detail comes across in their work, even if only in the backgrounds.

Perhaps the most interesting on disc 1 is a discussion by the writers of all the multitude of ways the writers and director thought about killing off the antagonist. To hear them explain why they went with the final version is really fascinating and gave me an appreciation for the thought they put into how each ending would affect the overall theme (i.e., Carl getting over the death of Ellie).

We also get two bonus shorts: “Dug’s Special Mission”, which basically shows a day in the life of Dug before he meets Carl and Russell; and “Partly Cloudy”, which originally premiered before Up. It’s a short about a stork who tires of his cloud giving him dangerous animals to deliver. While mildly entertaining, it’s pretty obvious what will happen the minute the short begins. It doesn’t have the unpredictable and lightning fast nature that “Presto” had, for example.

Adventure!!On disc 2, we get about 50 minutes of featurettes, covering such things as character development, the score, and visuals. There’s also an alternate marriage montage in storyboard form. Additionally, there’s an interactive game which seemed geared towards the younger set (point your cursor over the correct state). Rounding things off on disc 2 are six minutes of promotional materials for Up. They’re little more than animation set pieces without music, but are worth watching just for more “awww”-worthy Dug footage. Finally, there are two theatrical Up trailers.

Disc 3 is just a repeat of disc 1 in DVD form. Why was this necessary again? And disc 4 is only of value if you’re interested in downloading a digital copy of the film. It wasn’t for me. All of this just seems like a waste of perfectly good discs to me.

To sum up, there’s a lot less here than the enticing “four discs!” marketing ploy would have you believe. What is here is quality, and like any Pixar Blu-ray, the image quality is practically perfect, but those expecting something akin to Lord of the Rings Extended Editions (which was also four discs), with hours upon hours of goodies, are going to be disappointed. Oh well, at least they didn’t get redundant with their special material, which is always appreciated.

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