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What's the big deal?
Up is a CG-animated fantasy adventure movie released in 2009 and is the tenth animated film produced by Pixar Studios. Directed by Pete Docter, the film follows the adventures of an elderly man and his Boy Scout stowaway as the man's house is carried away by thousands of balloons. The film stars Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer and Bob Peterson. Docter began working on the film in 2004 when he began fantasising about escaping the irritants of every day life. The film became the first animated and 3D picture to open the Cannes Film Fetsival in 2009 and was released to universal praise from critics. The film would go on to earn $735 million worldwide and would become only the second animated film in history to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards after Beauty And The Beast in 1991. The film is dedicated to Joe Grant, a veteran artist at Disney who worked on the film but died in 2005.
What's it about?
In the 1930's, eight-year-old Carl Fredricksen dreams of imitating his idol, the legendary explorer Charles F. Muntz. After claiming to have discovered a giant exotic bird at Paradise Falls, Muntz finds himself becoming a laughing stock and vows to capture a live bird for when he next returns. Carl, meanwhile, meets with another fan of Muntz - a young girl called Ellie who dreams of moving her neglected home to Paradise Falls. Over time, the two marry and renovate Ellie's house but after Ellie suffers a miscarriage which prevents the two from having children, they decide to save up for their trip to Paradise Falls but never quite manage it. With Carl now an elderly citizen, Ellie suddenly falls ill and dies.
Years later, Carl is the lone holdout in the neighbourhood which has seen every other property torn down and replaced with modern skyscrapers. Despite stubbornly refusing to leave his home, Carl instead converts the property into an airship of sorts when thousands of helium balloons are released and lift his house high into the sky. Setting sail for Paradise Falls, Carl finds himself perfectly content until he discovers a stowaway in the form of earnest Boy Scout Russell who is somewhat alarmed to find himself trapped on a floating house...
Charles F. Muntz
Dug / Alpha
Kevin / Campmaster Strauch
Bob Peterson & Pete Docter*
Release Date (UK)
9th October, 2009
Animation, Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy
Best Original Score, Best Animated Feature
Academy Award Nomination
Best Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound Editing
What's to like?
It isn't often that one comes across a film that truly makes you stop and pay attention to it in the way that Up does. The opening scenes are not just beautiful and well animated, like all Pixar films, but they are also help set up the film's narrative and provide an almost shocking tragedy at the heart of the picture. Dealing with themes that few pictures (animated or otherwise) address in a smart and family-friendly way, the film immediately establishes its unlikely protagonist as a man with a real story and heart-breaking truth behind his general curmudgeonly exterior. For me, this is some of the best animation I've ever seen in any picture - I can't think of any other film that made me care for its characters quite so much.
It might not be the easiest picture for the Disney machine to sell but Up offers viewers a strange and unusual journey for families to enjoy. The youngsters will appreciate the second half of the film more which depicts a more madcap escapism that sticks to familiar tropes like talking animals and a villain in the form of Plummer's maniacal explorer. Adults, however, will see the film differently - a bold and arguably progressive picture that deals with themes such as loss, grief and the long recovery from it. Asner's performance is matched well with Nagai's energetic and enthusiastic Scout and while the use of 3D may seem redundant at first, it's best for depicting the dizzying heights achieved by Carl's house as it sails serenely above the world below.
- When the film opened the Cannes Film Festival, the audience remained silent as the film finished. According to executive producer John Lasseter, actress Tilda Swinton began applauding and stood up which caused the other audience members to follow suit and give the picture a standing ovation.
- The design of the house is based on that of Edith Macefield, a resident of Ballard, Washington who resisted efforts to move her to make way for a new development. Her house still stands in the centre of a development known as the Ballard Blocks.
- The film marked the debut of Nagai and aside from a cameo in The Simpsons, this is his only acting credit in film or TV. Nagai's character is also the first time an Asian American character appeared in a Pixar film and was praised by the community for eschewing traditional stereotypes.
What's not to like?
Much like WALL•E did in its second half, Up loses its way somewhat and can't quite sustain its originality until the end. The film ditches the emotional heft it had expertly established and becomes a standard animated family film with talking animals everywhere. Granted, these are much funnier than usual - I especially enjoyed the goofy Dug whose collar grants him the ability to speak, albeit with a childlike innocence that wins you over. But it felt disappointing that the story wasn't as imaginative and thought-provoking as it was when it started out. I will also say that at first, I didn't 'get' the picture. I didn't find it as entertaining or as pretty as WALL•E but having since been widowed myself, I find my appreciation of the picture growing all the more. However bizarre it may seem to those on the outside, there is an innate desire to maintain ties with your late partner and Carl's ideas and demeanour seem perfectly natural to me.
I fear that the main reason why I didn't fully get on board with the film was due to stratospheric expectation after WALL•E which happens to be one of my favourite films of all time. Up isn't as readily accessible as Pixar's masterpiece, which handles its themes of the environment and over-consumerism in such a way that even the youngest of viewers will understand what it's about. This film, by contrast, felt a little too abstract for my tastes although it's still a damned good picture. But I don't love it in the same way that I love that shabby recycling robot. There isn't much wrong with Up but I simply prefer Pixar's previous picture, that's all.
Should I watch it?
Up continues Pixar's history of producing quality family entertainment that adults and children will enjoy. It's a surprisingly deep and affecting picture that packs an emotional punch few will see coming but I just wished that the film's narrative pushed the boundaries a bit more instead of relying on tried and trusted cliches to see it over the finishing line. Yes, it isn't as enjoyable as Pixar's greatest film but then again, what is?
Great For: the whole family, curmudgeons, widowed viewers
Not So Great For: people with sky-high expectations, Disney's marketing department, other animation studios left behind in Pixar's trailblazing dust
What else should I watch?
I know I keep banging on about WALL•E but it is simply magnificent, a heart-breaking sci-fi epic that depicts two robots fighting to remind us mortals what it means to be human. Combined with a strong message on the environment and a sly dig at Disney themselves for their relentless consumerist policies, I can think of no other animation that impressed me as much as this did - if possible, try and see it on a big screen and drink in just how wonderfully animated and how beautiful the film is. Compared to Toy Story, WALL•E is Pixar's Citizen Kane compared to the genre-creating silent masterpieces like George Méliès' A Trip To The Moon.
To describe Pixar as the masters of CG is to flatter them somewhat as other studios have caught up with films like Despicable Me and even Disney themselves with the massively successful Frozen. But on their day, Pixar remain nigh-on unbeatable in terms of family entertainment - Finding Nemo is a much-loved and colourful journey under water, The Incredibles is just about the most fun I've ever had at a cinema while Inside Out is a thought-provoking and often overlooked film that depicts the inner workings of a young girl's brain.
© 2019 Benjamin Cox