Up, Up and Away: Another New High for Pixar

9 minute read
Richard Corliss

This Story Has Been Updated

It started with a cartoon drawing: a cluster of gaily colored party balloons held by a cranky old man, his eyes asquint, as if daring any kid to take one. Pete Docter’s sketch, made back in ’04, suggested another droll innovation at Pixar, a studio proud of taking risks in a traditional genre; mean and old are words rarely attached to the main character in an animated feature. But Docter, 40, who’d done the 2001 Monsters, Inc., and his co-director and co-writer Bob Peterson didn’t want just to have fun with the elderly gent. They would send him and the audience on a journey in two new directions: penetratingly inward and exaltedly up.

Those, you might say, were the compass points of last summer’s Pixar wonder WALL•E, of which Docter was the original director (before handing the project to Andrew Stanton). There are other similarities between that futurist galactic epic and Up, which arrives in North American theaters Friday after its rapturous reception two weeks ago as the opening-night attraction at the Cannes Film Festival. Both movies are about lonely creatures–a droid left on Earth, a man whose cherished wife has died–taking a perilous trip. Both protagonists are stout and box-shaped and don’t talk much. Both films, under the thrill-ride wrapping, are unabashed love stories. And though it’s not yet summer, we can declare that Up, like WALL•E, will prove to be one of the most satisfying movie experiences of its year.

Floating Away

Spanning two continents and seven decades, Up begins in a 1930s movie theater. A newsreel tells us that famous explorer Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer) is just back from South America’s remote Paradise Falls with the bones of a prehistoric bird. Denounced as a fraud by archaeologists, Muntz vows to retrieve a member of the species and bring it back alive. In the audience, wearing aviator goggles atop his thick-rimmed specs, is young Carl Fredricksen, who is enthralled by Muntz’s motto, “There’s adventure out there!”

On the way home, Carl finds a kindred spirit: a girl named Ellie (voiced by Docter’s young daughter Elie), as vivacious as he is stolid, who harbors the same dream of visiting Paradise Falls. It’s love at first sight, and in a tender montage, Up shows us their life together: the wedding, the fixing up of their home, the quiet walks, their respective jobs at the local zoo (she tending the animals, he selling balloons), their eager preparations for a child they later learn they can’t have, their need to defer the big trip to pay for home improvements, then her slowing pace and death. This series of vignettes is played without dialogue and underscored by Michael Giacchino’s wistful waltz. It’s the sweetest, saddest 4½ minutes you’ll ever see on film.

With the love of his life gone, widower Carl (Ed Asner) might as well be dead. His grief has soured into guilt, which he walls up in a castle of cantankerousness. His day is a dull routine of dressing, hobbling with his cane to sit on the front porch and keeping his home just as it was when Ellie was there. It’s really a mausoleum, and he is both caretaker and corpse. We never heard Carl say a word to Ellie while she was alive, but now he talks nonstop to his absent darling. She’d understand his bitterness; she might even forgive it.

Since this character study is also an action-adventure film, Carl has to go somewhere–Paradise Falls, obviously. But he doesn’t have to leave his home. Threatened with eviction to an old folks’ home, he attaches 20,000 helium-filled balloons to his house, and off it floats toward South America. But there’s a stowaway on board: Russell (Jordan Nagai), a plump, determined kid who has been pestering Carl to let him “assist the elderly,” the one good deed he needs to become a full Wilderness Explorer. The old man isn’t pleased, but he’s not stopping now.

As Docter notes, Up is driven by the idea of escape–the notion, familiar to dreamers of any age, that “you could just float away and take what you want with you.” What Carl wants to take is the house where he spent a happy half-century with Ellie and where, in a sense, she still lives. Like a snail or, more likely, Atlas, Carl carries his house and the world’s burden on his back; his wish for escape is also a sacred responsibility, to take Ellie to Paradise Falls.

Thanks to some extraordinarily favorable trade winds, that’s where Carl and Russell land. Instantly they find the bird–a gorgeous, jollier version of Chuck Jones’ cartoon Roadrunner–that eluded Muntz for decades. He’s dubbed Kevin by Russell, who has a knack for attracting exotic creatures, including a pack of electronic dogs. (Peterson lends his sharp vocal skills to the lead dog, Alpha, and the goofily endearing, polylingual Dug.)

In contrast to the muted palette of Carl’s home, the South American landscape is a genial riot of color that looks ravishing in what ever format the movie is shown in. Up will be projected in 3-D in many theaters, but there are no special boinggg effects, and you needn’t pay the extra $3 to get the emotional or visual lift the picture delivers. In his Variety review, Todd McCarthy wrote that “the film’s overall loveliness presents a conceivable argument in favor of seeing it in 2-D: Even with the strongest possible projector bulbs, the 3-D glasses reduce the image’s brightness by 20%.”

Echoes of Oz

The movie stirs lots of cinematic echoes, some natural–Walt Disney’s Dumbo was a touchstone for Docter–and some weird. The dragging of a large structure over rugged South American terrain is also a motif in the Werner Herzog epic Fitzcarraldo. A love story continued after death: Remember Ghost? Docter also cites Thomas McCarthy’s The Station Agent, “the story of a solitary guy who reconnects with the world.”

The central connection, though, is with The Wizard of Oz, about a lonely girl and her flying house. The old guy alights in a wonderland, meets magical or malevolent animals and an old villain and is rejuvenated by the simple act of letting go of his obsession and caring for someone else. By the end of his adventure, he’s a movie superhero, an older version of Indiana Jones. He also realizes that the small pleasures often trump the big thrills. Oz may provide death-defying fun, but what’s the matter with Kansas?

Except for The Incredibles, Brad Bird’s obligatorily cartoony vision of a superhero family, Up is the first Pixar feature in which the main characters are humans. Up isn’t realistic either. It revels in a minimum of dialogue, deft comic underplaying and a style the Pixar people call simplexity. “We tried to push caricature,” Docter says, “and the language of shapes–to make these drawings an expression of the characters. Carl wants to stay enclosed in his box of a house. He’s just kind of square. His wife is more curves, almost balloon shapes, and Russell is very balloon-like.” From his shape, Russell could be the child Carl and Ellie desperately wanted. Kind of takes after his mother.

Every Pixar production involves some 300 artists, but the actors come first; they have to, because the dialogue is recorded to guide the animators. Asner, 79, who used his slow burn brilliantly on the great Mary Tyler Moore ’70s sitcom, had the gruffness and deadpan comic timing to bring Carl to vocal life. As Docter recalls, “When we first met Ed and showed him a small sculpture we’d made of Carl, he said [growling], ‘I don’t look anything like that.’ And we thought, O.K., this is gonna be perfect.” Docter and Peterson then tailored the dialogue to the actor’s speech patterns. “We looked for words that had more consonants and shortened the sentences,” Docter says. That cemented the notion that Carl, post-Ellie, is a disgruntled bear that’s been poked awake during hibernation.

Nagai, the nonprofessional kid chosen for Russell, needed a bit of coaching. Since Docter had chosen as his co-star in Monsters, Inc. Mary Gibbs, who was all of 2-1/2 at the time, he’s a past master at working with kids. “When Jordan had to be excited,” Docter says, “he would get maybe 50%. So I’d tell him, ‘Run around the room, run back here and say the line–ready, set, go!’ We’d do it one line at a time like that.” For a scene in which Russell is cradled and tickled by a giant South American bird, “I actually lifted him upside down and tickled him,” Docter says, “which you probably wouldn’t do with Ed.”

He probably won’t have to do it with the movie’s viewers either; they’ll be tickled and touched without prodding. Extending the patented Pixar mix of humor and heart, Up is the studio’s most deeply emotional and affecting work. Docter says he had a ball digging fresh ground, finding “this nice new road that we got to go out and drive on.” The story of a septuagenarian grouch who uses his cane, hearing aid and dentures to thwart all evildoers; a buddy movie whose pals are separated by 70 years; a love story that transcends the grave–has there been a movie like this in the history of feature animation? “Well,” says the man who made Up, “I hope not!”

The Glee pilot is just a giant basket of happy TELEVISION, PAGE 59

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