Posted by mike in Film,Reviews at 1:20 pm on July 25, 2009

I took a few weeks off to attend to some real life stuff, which I’ll blog about in the near future, but for now I’ve got at least 4 film-related entries I’ve been working on, so we’ll get to those first.

Status: In theaters (opened 5/29/09)
Directed By: Pete Docter
Written By: Bob Peterson and Pete Docter
Cinematography: Jean-Claude Kalache, Patrick Lin
Starring: Edward Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai

Evoking genuine sympathy in an audience for a character is hard enough to do with real actors, so it’s even more impressive when an animated film is able to accomplish such a feat. This is doubly true when it does so better than many live-action movies, at that. This is largely the case with Pixar’s Up, which tells the story of an elderly man named Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner) who sets out to fulfill his lifelong dream of adventure. After losing his wife in one of the most strikingly touching introductory scenes I can recall, Carl heads to South America via a very unique mode of transportation: he attaches hundreds (thousands?) of helium balloons to his house, turning the whole damn thing into an airship and setting course for the fictional Paradise Falls in Venezuela.

In South America, Carl finds the adventure he’s always longed for, thanks in part to his bumbling young Wilderness Explorer companion, Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai). They find a long-lost explorer and Carl’s boyhood hero, Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer), who had been believed lost but has really been stubbornly remaining in South America until he finds a giant exotic bird that he’s just sure exists. Muntz is also a whacky professor of sorts, having invented voice boxes for his sole companions, a large pack of dogs that serve and protect him. These devices function much like the gorilla-speech gimmick from Congo, although unlike in that film here they’re at least intended to be funny. The dogs fill a familiar role common to all movies that follow the now-well-known Pixar template, the formulaic adherence to which is this film’s biggest disappointment.

After the very emotional and very adult opening act, the rest of the movie’s hijinks come as somewhat of a letdown. This is the second film in a row (after WALL-E) where Pixar has shown that they are fully capable of making mature, well-told stories with a lot of embedded social commentary, but also that they are happy to eschew their brilliant set-ups to appeal to their core audience of children. Up keeps its focus a little better than WALL-E did, though, by not as thoroughly abandoning its opening premise in the name of screwball comedy and routine, over-tread chase scenes. Muntz’s dogs, for instance, are search-and-replace updates to the robots from the Axiom in WALL-E. One of them in particular—the requisite black sheep with a heart of gold—becomes the Jar-Jar Binks of this film. I’m sure the kids love it, though.

It’s hard to know how to judge a movie like this. I’ve heard it’s a very “serious” film, been told that it’s as appealing to adults as it is to children, and that I should take it seriously as an important work of art. It opened Cannes (the first-ever animated feature to do so). And yet, about two-thirds of the movie is, to me, nothing more than yet another rehash of The Brave Little Toaster‘s formula, which animated films have been recycling for over 20 years now (including those produced by the venerable Pixar). That said, for what it’s trying to do, it does it very well, and framing the zaniness with a real human story is certainly preferable to the alternative of churning out yet another mindless piece of children’s entertainment.

Still, I find myself wondering if a guy like Pete Docter wouldn’t be better off going all-in with a real story and avoiding the kiddie-bait altogether, whether he did it as an animated feature or as live action. I’ll not presume to know his aspirations, but it feels to me like in the recent Pixar films (especially WALL-E and now Up) there is a talented and visionary writer behind them who is forced to sneak his true stories into what would otherwise be juvenile animated features. Then again, maybe that’s the intention all along, and while that might be a good thing as far as the children in the audience are concerned, it also proves to be a bit unsatisfying for the adults.

This was the second film I’ve seen in 3D, utilizing the RealD technology, after Coraline. Whereas that film was very dark (both thematically and visually), however, Up is meant to be bright and vibrant, with a vivid color palette and many beautifully rendered vistas throughout. In this regard, having to wear polarizing glasses greatly diminishes the visual aesthetic of the film, as all of the colors are dampened at the sake of adding the third dimension. Despite the fact that the 3D effects are done tastefully and unobtrusively, this aspect alone makes it not worthwhile. My recommendation would be to see this movie in 2D and forgo the RealD experience this time around, fun as it may appear to be.