Mark had been eagerly looking forward to Pixar's Up. And right now, he feels like the lone voice of dissent...
I’ve been a long-term fan of almost everything Pixar has produced. However, I’m not completely convinced by some of their movies. I found Finding Nemo overly sentimental and Cars left me entirely cold. To my sensibilities, their best movie so far is The Incredibles with both Toy Story outings, Ratatouille and Monsters Inc. all being top notch productions. Pixar has an enviable track record in memorable characters, plot development, stunning design and breathtaking animation. And it’s only because of those past glories that I’m going to make the somewhat controversial statement that I didn’t think that Up was good enough to meet the very high standards that Pixar has set.
Don’t get me wrong: the film looks and moves wonderfully. My issues are all to do with the subject matter, the character development and the overall pacing. What concerns me slightly is that these were all weaknesses in Wall-E, but are strengths of the previous titles, Ratatouille and The Incredibles.
In the first ten minutes of Up the story takes on an odd complexion, one that haunts it from that point onwards. The opening scenes are pure Pixar gold, with the young Carl Fredricksen inspired by an adventurer in a cinema newsreel. Investigating a derelict house, he meets an equally exploration orientated childhood sweetheart, whom he will go on in later life to marry.
It’s lovely observational humour, great characterisation and a warm, rich aesthetic that only Pixar can produce. And then even before we get to bask in that glow, a darkness descends, as poor Carl’s life is entirely dissected like a cadaver in a public autopsy.
Carl and Ellie’s life together starts with a promise they’ll adventure together to the lost world of Paradise Falls, but they never get there. Instead they build a home and life only to discover she is infertile, and having not lived their common dream they both become old and infirm, then she becomes ill and dies. If this sounds heavy for a kids movie, then I’ve painted it somewhat lightly.
They left out Carl’s first erectile dysfunction and the loss of his teeth, thankfully, but the over-arching themes of regret, loneliness and espousal loss aren’t obvious choices for child-friendly fodder.
To add to Carl’s problems, property developers have encircled his home and he’s now the unwelcome recipient of Wilderness Explorer Russell, keen to earn his ‘help the elderly’ badge.
Determined to ditch some of these concerns he converts his home into a helium balloon and sets course for Paradise Falls. What he doesn’t realise is that Russell is along for the ride, although the knocking on the door at high altitude is a hint he’s not entirely alone.
You’d reasonably think flying from North America to somewhere in the jungles of South America would take a long time, and involve many adventures, but in Up it’s over in a blink. The house arrives a couple of miles from their destination point almost immediately, and the entire rest of the movie is occupied with that final small journey to the edge of the falls.
Along the way they encounter Kevin the large and colourful bird with an annoying squawk, and Dug, the electronically enhanced talking dog. The dog is more amusing than the bird, although most of his best gags were eaten by the trailer.
In many respects in this phase of the movie the house becomes a character, dragged as it is by Carl and Russell. Getting the house to the falls is a curiously slow race against time, as Carl realises that the helium leaks from the balloons and that eventually the house will come to rest permanently. Just like the house this part of the movie drags, and then descends rapidly when three more talking dogs appear who are much less friendly than Dug.
Their leader, Alpha, is initially given a high pitched voice, presumably to make him less scary to younger kids, except the effect is so extreme that I couldn’t make out half the time what he was saying. It turns out that these dogs are also looking for Kevin, sent by their master and Carl’s childhood inspiration Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer). I got a little confused when he appeared as the very young (maybe 6) Carl saw Muntz in his 20s in the newsreel and Carl is now 78! How old is Muntz?
Unsurprisingly, it turns out that hunting this rare bird has sent Muntz bonkers and he’s determined to capture it even if it kills Russell and Carl and costs the destruction of the house. I won’t spoil the ending, but by this stage it didn’t hold much in the way of surprises for me. It has a couple of good action sequences, but again the best sight gags they had on offer got used in the trailer.
When it ended I sat for a while trying to absorb what I’d seen, and asking myself ‘did you like that’ – which the asking of is in itself is an answer. The reply eventually came back. No, I didn’t.
The concept lost me somewhere between his wife dying in the first ten minutes and the appearance of Kevin the bird. The best Pixar movies come over like a Swiss watch mechanism where all the finely crafted pieces mesh together seamlessly by the end. Up doesn’t mesh, and specifically the boundless optimism of Russell’s character grinds against the depressing reality of Carl’s life in a most unsatisfying way.
The irony of this is that the best aspect of the movie is the interaction of Russell and Carl, played by Jordan Nagai and Ed Asner (Lou Grant himself), who give pitch perfect performances. Yet, I still didn’t buy that Carl just needs an injection of Russell’s naivety to realise his life isn’t over. Getting old is a reality you can’t get a badge to fix.
But the theme and tone issues were just part of the problem. The reaction of the younger members of the audience gave away the numerous flat spots in storytelling with which Up is endowed, not to mention how sad some of it is.
There’s a scene towards the end where Muntz tries to set fire to the house, which is pretty cruel, but, actually, throughout, whenever the house moves dramatically, we get cut-away shots of Carl’s most prized personal possessions being smashed. It’s like they set out to develop empathy with Carl just so they could get some reaction by destroying his keepsakes.
The presentation I saw was in 3D, the first I’d seen using the Dolby 3D system. It was cute in places, but hardly earth shattering. The depth the system can represent is limited, and as such most scenes boiled down to just simplistic foreground and background objects. I don’t think seeing it in 2D would be much of a loss, and I was left wondering if the real purpose was to screen something that would be difficult to pirate by recording in the cinema. Those that rave about 3D are clearly experiencing something my optic nerves can’t process.
In the end this is a colourful romp that tries to explain to younger kids what being old is all about, an aspect of which is inevitably death. I think that’s an extraordinary challenge that Pixar chose to cover this ground, and I salute them for their audacity in trying. But for me, Up never actually became airborne.
Here’s Ron Hogan’s review of Up on its US screening. It arrives in the UK on Friday 9th October.