Thursday, May 28, 2009

Movie Review: "Up"

I wrote a more standard review for The Source. But the truth is that this movie is so wonderful that I want to take the time to write my thoughts out a bit more.

Drunk, giddy and spellbound.

Those are the only words to describe how I felt upon leaving the screening of "Up" the other night. A joyously original blend of adventure, comedy and heart, the latest film from the magicians at Pixar is a fresh blast of imagination, a warm hug of a film that makes one grateful to be a moviegoer at a time when this studio is churning out a masterpiece each year.

And you are reading the words of a man who went into the theater with expectations set sky high.

I grew up on Disney films, a kid just old enough to see the studio's renaissance in the 1980s and 1990s, when "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Best," "Aladdin" and "The Lion King" were released. There was a time in my childhood when I wanted to be an animator for the simple reason that I wanted to bring these stories to life and tell these timeless tales.

Obviously, the Disney brand ended up dipping in quality over the years, turned into less of a dream factory and more of a sweat shop by Michael Eisner. But around that same time, when the quality was starting to lag, a little upstart known as Pixar came out with "Toy Story." The rest is history.

Of course, in those first few years, Pixar was just telling really good, funny stories that were all the more amazing because of special effects. "Toy Story" and "A Bug's Life" were beloved films, mainly because of the originality of the storytelling but also because the story's were funny comedies. The big draw for Pixar movies used to be the "outtakes" at the end. Adults and kids loved the movies but the truth is there's not a lot of depth in the first "Toy Story" or "A Bug's Life."

And surely, I thought, Pixar's domination would be tested when companies like Dreamworks began releasing their CGI comedies with megastars--and, indeed, I was a big fan of the first "Shrek," upon its release and even was pleased when it beat out "Monsters Inc." for best animated picture.

But we all know what happened. Dreamworks and the other studios went the easy-money route, cranking out several films a year that feature huge stars, double entendres and pop culture refrences. Sometimes they manage to still deliver gems ("Kung Fu Panda," "Bee Movie") that make me laugh very hard--feature length Looney Tunes, basically. But more often than not you get a series of anthropomorphized animals telling dated jokes. The "Shrek" template--which was once so fresh--is now the formula that most of these films cling to.

Except for Pixar.

While the other studios keep cranking out sequels and films that look identical several times a year, Pixar has worked at its own pace. It was only recently that they began releasing one film a year. And while the early films still stick to a recognizable template, they've always managed to keep story and character first, with laughs that are organic to the situation and a surprising depth that proves that these films are not just kids' stuff.

I remember the first time I realized that Pixar knew exactly how to work me. Ironically, it was with its only sequel--"Toy Story 2." I was having a good time with the movie, laughing and marveling at how far the CGI had come. It was a fun family movie.

And then "Jessie's Song" played.

I'm sure you all know the sequence--it's the part of the film where Jessie the Cowgirl is singing to Woody about how her owner abandoned her. And the pure beauty of that sequence and the sincerity of the lyrics turned what I expected to be the film's cheesy spot into something I never expected in an animated film--a heart-breaking emotional moment. Yes, the song was about a toy. But at that moment the film's themes came to life--this was not just a fun kids' movie (although it's very fun, as all Pixar movies are). This was about our fears of being forgotten and many people flashed to breakups at that moment?

That's exactly what Pixar does--tells original stories that are funny and exciting...and then they hook your heart...remember the pure bliss of that final shot in "Monster's Inc." when Sully beams upon seeing Boo again? The very real fear a father has for his son's safety in "Finding Nemo"? Pixar's supehero movie, "The Incredibles" was about culture's tendency to celebrate mediocrity, wrapped up in an action-comedy that touched on fears of marital infidelity and midlife crises...and STILL is more exciting than most superhero movies out there. Even the "minor" Pixar--"A Bug's Life" or "Cars," in my opinion--have to settle for being "merely" very very good films.

But recently, the studio has surprised even me, a diehard fan. I expected Brad Bird's "Incredibles" followup "Ratatouille" to be charming and funny, which it is...I did not expect it be a celebration of passion, collaboration and art, while also reminding critics of the responsibility/privilege we have. And I certainly knew "WALL-E"--the best film of 2008--was something special from the day I saw the first trailer. But I was not prepared at how beautiful that first dialogue-free half would be, nor how intelligent its mixture of sci-fi and social satire would be while still telling a very human tale of love.

So I'm on to Pixar's game. And although I thought "Up" looked cute and visually astounding, there was a part of me that was a tad looked funny and exciting, but I couldn't understand where the depth was going to come in. And my attitude was that after nine great films that continually pushed the bar, I wasn't going to be satisfied with "minor Pixar." There was going to have to be more than just a cute kid, a grumpy old man and a talking dog.

When the tears began flowing five minutes into the movie, I realized that I should never ever doubt Pixar.

Yes, the trailers are correct: "Up" is about a 78-year-old man named Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner), who attaches balloons in hopes of flying to South America as part of a way to fulfill the wishes of his late wife. And yes, there's a cute kid named Russell (newcomer Jordan Nagai) who stows away in hopes of getting his "Assistng the Elderly" scout badge. And upon reaching Paradise Falls, there are dogs with collars that allow them to talk, a very colorful bird and a villainous old man named Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), an adventurer who went mad after being called a fraud. And yes, "Up's"'s very literally a snipe hunt.

But the alchemy used by director Pete Docter (Monster's Inc.) to weave excitiment, humor and heart into this tale is astounding. In a year where even the best films--and there haven't been many--have been reboots, retreads, formulaic comedies or comic book adaptations, "Up" bursts at the seams with invention and imagintion. I smiled watching the film as I realized I had no idea where the story was going, and --even better--that I had never seen this movie before. It's a fast, fun and breathtaking ride that will easily rank among Pixar's best.

I mentioned the tears starting in the first five minutes. The truth is, they were only a few tears becaue I somehow managed to hold in the sobs that wanted to come. The movie begins with a montage, completely wordless and brilliantly scored by Michael Giacchino, that depicts how Carl and his wife Ellie met as children, bonded by adventure, and fell in love. The sequence follows them as they get married, learn a heartbreaking truth, pull themselves together and save money to eventually go on an adventure, and then watch that fund dwindle as life intrudes--bills, health problems, work...they soon seem to forget about Ellie's dream to find Paradise Falls. By the time the montage ends, with as heartbreaking an ending as a family film has ever had, there will probably not be a dry eye in any theater showing this film. In just five short minutes, Docter has captured the joy and heartbreak of human life and also endeared Carl to us. We don't blame him for being a cranky old recluse when we catch up with him...we've mourned with him, dreamed with him and the film actually creates an older character who isn't just a rascally old man, but actually is a character that feels real and aged. Most live action films can't even do that right.

But at that point I realized the film also had its claws in me for another reason. I'm less than half Carl's age. But I could relate to him. I'm hitting 30 in two months and, as people are prone to do, I've started reflecting on life so far. How many of my own dreams and adventures have I had to put on hold because of the demands of daily life? Will I one day be an old man who has nothing to show for it but a 401K, a house and a routine? If "WALL-E" asked us to consider the difference between living and surviving, "Up" gives us a character who had no choice but to survive and is now wondering where life has gone. Again, this is heavy stuff for a kids' film.

But Asner's so perfect for the role--a crusty old curmudgeon with a touch of mischief--that the film never is maudlin. He's not a grumpy old man without any trace of life. Rather Carl is a man clinging to what's familiar--the home he and Ellie showed--and resisting the changes springing up around him, including neighborhood developers who want his home. The circumstances that lead to his imminent eviction--which sets his plan to fly the home away in motion--are surprising for a family movie--Carl basically assaults a construction worker. But because the montage we had shows us why Carl reacts that way and we don't feel shocked by his actions but rather a bit angry ourselves at how he's been treated. No wonder this man, faced with abandoning the home he and his wife shared for decades, decides to harness balloons to the roof and fly away so he can be alone with his familiar surroundings.

And, of course, we'd all be just a little peeved and confused if a pesky little Wilderness Scout knocked on our door while we were a mile off the ground.

Russell is another great Pixar creation, a fat little scout who simply wants to be a world-class explorer (and mirror of Carl's own lost childhood dreams, which may be why he is so resistant to liking the kid). Nagai gives a great childhood performance as the nerdy, lovable and adorably annoying kid. But there's also a sad side to him--we don't learn much about Russell's family but what's said shows that he's a product of divorced parents and that the situation has had an affect on him. And so not only is Carl about to find an adventure companion but Russell will find a father figure. And yet the film never beats you over the head with it but simply lets the characters develop and react to each other naturally. There's no forced emotion in this movie; every feeling is genuine.

And I haven't even mentioned Dug yet, who will quickly be the fan favorite.

Dug is one of Muntz's trained dogs, equipped with special collars to translate their thoughts into speech. Dug, however, is not as agile or dedicated a hunter as the other dogs and is more prone to lick the people he meets. I love that Docter doesn't use the translator as a way to simply give a wisecrack animal sidekick but allows the humor to come from the fact that Dug thinks and acts just like a dog...complete to being easily distracted ("Squirrel" will be this summer's big catch phrase). Even his thoughts are not the standard "witty" one-liners we're faced with in these movies. When Dug greets Carl by saying "I have just met you but I love you," the line is even funnier because of the realization that that is probably exactly what a dog is thinking. I won't spoil more of the character, except to say that Dug's "joke" about squirrels is one of the funniest lines in the film.

And yes, Dug is just one of many talking dogs. Muntz has trained them to be at his beck and call and Docter wrings giant laughs out of this--from the sounds made by failed translators to the various tasks the dogs to to a literal aerial dogfight at the end, "Up" is packed with fantastic sight gags, clever dialouge and wonderfully bizarre touches that make the film a constant joy and surprise. There's a colorful snipe named Kevin, a dirigible that serves as Muntz's headquarters and break-neck chases through the jungle. I don't even want to describe these sequences because part of the joy of the movie comes from the way it manages to throw bizarre, hilarious and exciting surprises at the audience every minute. It's definitely the most out-there thing the studio has done (and also, I guarantee it, the first kids' film to pay homage to Werner Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo) and also the funniest and briskly pace.

The animation is superb, as is always the case with Pixar. I love the bright pallete Docter and his team use, from the wonderful assortment of colorful balloons that start the journey to the vivid landscapes awaiting in South America. I love Docter's skill at framing a joke--there is a comic timing to the sight gags here, such as when the snipe first appears, that is truly an art form. And I love the way that the film remains grounded in its tale of an old man learning to let go of what's familiar and take on one more adventure while also lavishing surprises on the audience.

"Up" is the real deal folks. And I conclude by saying this--I haven't even scratched the surface of what I love about this movie; do yourself a favor and see it for yourself.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.