I honestly can't think of anything wrong with the new Pixar film "Up" co-written and co-directed by Pete Docter ("Monsters, Inc.") and Bob Peterson (co-writer on "Ratatouille" and various other jobs on many Pixar films).
Really, the only discussion that occurs after watching this new film is "Where does "Up" fall on your list of Pixar films? Is it the best?" I'm not sure it's the best, but it is a superb piece of filmmaking.
Carl Fredrickson (voiced by Ed Asner) is a lonely old man, a widower, who still lives in the tiny brightly colored clapboard house he and his wife spent their marriage in. Now that he no longer has his wife and best friend with him, he spends his days thinking about the past and watching his neighborhood become a very different place. A huge development is growing around him and Carl is being pressured to sell his house to the developer. One afternoon, Russell (Jordan Nagai), a chubby Wilderness Explorer, rings his bell and wants to help Carl with something, anything, to achieve his Senior Assistance badge, the last badge he needs to become a Senior Wilderness Explorer. But Carl is grumpy and doesn't need anything and only wants to be left alone. One morning, Carl reveals he has tied thousands of helium balloons to his house and rigged a navigation system and sets off to find the fabled Paradise Falls in South America, a place he and his wife always wanted to visit. After he takes off, and begins to enjoy the solitude, there is a knock at the door. Russell has returned and unwittingly become a guest for the journey. When they eventually make it to South America, they meet Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), Carl's boyhood idol, and a disgraced adventurer who is still searching for a rare breed of bird, a bird that looks like a cross between a pelican and a dodo bird. Carl and Russell inadvertently befriend the bird and a dog-named Dug (Bob Peterson) wearing a collar provided by Muntz, which allows him to speak.
"Up" is a perfect film. The characters are interesting, funny, believable and human. The story is touching, brilliant, funny and human. It isn't often a film can make you cry one moment and then burst out with a guffaw of laughter the next. Many live action films have difficulty creating genuine emotions like this. When you are watching an animated film that manages to accomplish this, you realize you are experiencing something special.
We first meet Carl as a young boy as he watches a newsreel about his hero, Muntz. On his way home, he walks past an abandoned old house and finds a tomboy, Ellie playing inside. Ellie is everything Carl isn't and they become friends. In a brief, silent montage, we watch many of the key moments in their life, including the moment they decide to start saving their loose change to buy tickets to visit Paradise Falls, a place they both fell in love with because of Muntz's adventures there. But like most married couples, there are setbacks, bills to pay. This sequence is so true to life, so sweet and so moving that it catches us off guard and manages to create some really emotionally jarring moments for us. This may seem strange for an animated film, but Pixar doesn't just create animated films. They are always going for something else, something more interesting and more memorable. I have said before that even "just OK" Pixar films are heads and shoulders above most other studio fare and most animated films can't even come close to achieving the same level of skill and storytelling. Pixar is the king of animation and if the studios don't watch out, they just may become the King. Period.
As a lonely old widower, Carl (voiced by Ed Asner, the star of "Lou Grant" and "Mary Tyler Moore") does what you might expect a lonely old man to do. He goes about his routine and sits a lot, remembering the past. He and Ellie clearly loved one another and he still clearly cherishes the mementos of their life together. Particularly touching is a handmade badge he has worn ever since Ellie gave it to them when they were kids.
When Russell shows up on his doorstep, Carl's first instinct is to rudely brush him off. But Russell is determined to get his last badge, and ultimately his promotion, and won't take no for an answer, shoving his foot in the door like a salesman. Returning a few days later, Russell unwittingly becomes a guest along for the journey. As they make their way south, Russell and Carl learn more about each other. Carl, grumpy and surly as he is, finds he needs to help the young Wilderness Explorer. But does Russell end up helping Carl?
This is not the funniest Pixar film ever, but it achieves a more interesting balance of emotions. It isn't often that you find yourself crying during an emotional scene and a few minutes later, laughing your head off. Between these two extremes of emotion, we spend a lot of time with Russell and Carl and watch as their relationship grows and expands. All of this makes them distinctly believable, distinctly human. And they are animated characters.
Russell is a persistent kid, a self-effacing kid, who likes to talk. As he talks, he reveals a lot about his life. Carl is an introspective old man, a lonely old man and a man of few words. Basically, they are complete opposites. But because Carl is quiet, he listens, and as he and Russell journey to South America, he learns a lot about the Wilderness Explorer. Even more interesting than what we learn about the young boy is how we realize Carl has learned something. Carl makes a small gesture, or his eyes widen. These are very subtle moments, but they work because they make Carl seem so lifelike.
When they arrive in South America, they find Dug (Bob Peterson), a dog that has been trained by Muntz to help him find the fabled birdlike creature he has been hunting for. Muntz has, in fact, trained many dogs, and supplied them with special collars allowing them to speak. Dug is a bit of a loser compared to the other dogs, a dumb but very affectionate dog, he has been cast off on a mission of his own by the other dogs in his pack. They are much more daring and pack-oriented. Dug is more of a house pet. They can't stand him and know they would be better off without him. Interestingly, this is exactly the same ploy Carl uses early in the film to get rid of Russell.
As they move along, dragging Carl's floating house to his prized position near Paradise Falls, Dug excitedly joins them, eager for the companionship and the attention.
He also wants to be close to them because one of the birds has already become friends with Russell. But Dug doesn't really present a threat to the bird and they continue on their merry way.
Until Carl and his crew come across Muntz (Plummer). Muntz has spent the last half-century searching through South America for the bird. He stores his huge airship in a cave and lives very much like Captain Nemo. Initially, Carl is thrilled to meet his childhood idol, but when he realizes he wants to capture the bird they have befriended, his feelings change and he tries to protect his new feathered friend.
Muntz, who has spent so many years searching for the bird, clearly doesn't want to let the bird go and will do anything in his power to capture the bird. But Carl, Russell and Dug have some tricks up their sleeve to throw a few roadblocks in his path. Plummer does a great job of giving Muntz just the right amount of menace, respectability and loopiness.
The addition of the trained dogs is brilliant. Dug and the others add a lot of fun to the story and the opportunity for some brilliant visual puns.
"Up" is a brilliant animated effort, often achieving the same level of storytelling and skill many live action filmmakers can only dream of.
As usual, there is a new Pixar animated short before the film. "Partly Cloudy" is especially charming and reminds me of some of the classic animated cartoons Disney made in the 40s. A bedraggled stork has to put up with the exotic babies his cloud creates for him to deliver, longing for a cute puppy or kitten instead of the mix of dangerous and funny animals his cloud creates for him. Funny stuff.
"Up" is easily the best film I have seen so far this year.