Gran Torino with balloons
Up is an atypical film, but it is also a Pixar film, and since Pixar have spent the last 14 years making atypical films I suppose that would make Up a typical Pixar film. This is no bad thing as far as I'm concerned, as anyone who has ever been bored my constant, and somewhat pathetic, outpourings of love and devotion to that studio will be able to attest. Pixar came to prominence in the mid-90's, during the height of the American Animation Renaissance, and today they remain as pretty much the last vanguard of that increasingly golden age; a time when innovation in storytelling and technology went hand in hand, and they have weathered both the collapse of many of their contemporaries and the bursting of the CG animation bubble. Up continues their industry-defying upward trend.
The oddness of Up starts pretty much straight away with an opening 15 minutes that would not seem out of place in a Bergman film. Carl Fredricksen, a young boy of about 8, is playing on a street in 1930's America, impersonating his hero, the adventurer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). He hears sounds coming from a house and, upon investigation, meets Ellie, a young girl who shares his passion for adventuring. What follows then is a montage detailing their life together; their wedding, their childless but not loveless marriage, and their twilight years as Ellie's health deteriorates. Throughout this montage, we see the two trying to save up their money to travel to South America and live out their childhood dreams, but life intervenes and they are repeatedly forced to use their savings to pay for necessities. Eventually, on the day that Carl buys them plane tickets to South America, Ellie dies.
Yes, Pixar, creators of some of the best-loved animated films of the past decade and a half, start their latest off by having an entire lifetime passing before our lives. It is an absolutely heartbreaking opening gambit that had me choking back the tears before the events of the film had actually started in earnest. It's a brave and ambitious opening that speaks volumes about the point that Pixar have reached as a company; they are now in a position where they can start their film in such an uncommercial way (and a way which has led many to question whether it is actually suitable for children, considering its frankness concerning death) and still make over $60 million on opening weekend. The confidence and skill of director/co-writer Pete Docter and writer Bob Peterson on display during this sequence is simply awe-inspiring.
Considering the strength of the opening, it may not surprise anyone that the rest of the film does not hit quite those heights. After Ellie's death, Carl becomes something of a recluse. He potters around his empty house, the house he and Ellie made together, talks to Ellie as if she was still there, then sits on his porch and sneers at the men who want to buy his property so that they can knock it down and build a skyscraper on it. It is during one such encounter with the builders that he strikes one of them. A trip to court follows, and Carl is told that he will be sent to an old folks' home. Determined not to go, and to finally see South America, Carl ties thousands of balloons to his house and floats into the sky. The plan goes by without a hitch, until Carl realises that Russell (Jordan Nagai), a young Wilderness Scout, was under his house when it took off, and Carl is now stuck with him. Here is where the adventure actually starts.
As Carl, Ed Asner delivers a grouchy but incredibly warm performance. The character physically resembles Spencer Tracy, with a bit of Walther Matthau in there for good measure, and the combination of that design, squat, compact and wrinkled, makes him instantly likable, even though his action put him closer to Larry David than a kindly grandfather.
Much like WALL-E, Pixar's previous offering (and my number 3 film of last year) Up leads with its strongest punch, delivering a crippling emotional blow with that opening fifteen minutes, but the rest of the film winds up falling short of that high, high mark.
It would be churlish to criticise the film for being silly considering the basic premise of the film, but the film does get very silly in the final half an hour when it is forced to revert to the tried and tested 'action-adventure-showdown' that is seemingly required of all kid's films. Considering how much the rest of the film avoids cliches, focusing instead on character development and moments of humour, evidence of the contribution of Thomas McCarthy, writer-director of the subtle and wonderful films The Station Agent and The Visitor. And it is a funny film, quite possibly Pixar's funniest, but the last half an hour moves away from this towards action that is inappropriate. Inventive, exciting and involving action, but inappropriate action nonetheless.
My problems with the film do begin and end with that third act shift, though, since the rest of it was pure magic. Pixar have repeatedly delivered films that for all their sophistication have at their core the same quality that made classic Disney films so transcendent. They remind me what it was to be a child, and long may they do so.