Thursday, June 18, 2009
Director: Pete Docter, Bob Peterson
At first glance "Up" seems deceptively simple. Lonely widower Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner) decides to fulfill a promise he made to his wife - while escaping a retirement home appropriately called "Shady Oaks"- and travels to Venezuela's, fictitious, Paradise Falls. He uses his house, which is propelled by thousands of balloons, as transportation.
He ignores that there is a stowaway on board; little boy scout Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai), who was hoping to get his "Help the Elderly" badge by assisting Mr. Fredricksen.
With this premise you immediately wonder how the hell will the filmmakers keep afloat an entire feature length film using this.
But once again the miracle workers at Pixar succeed and deliver yet another landmark of animated filmmaking.
Working with a marvelous screenplay by Docter, Peterson and Thomas McCarthy, "Up" is an example of storytelling economics. There isn't a single scene, line or character that isn't necessary. The opening sequence, which could've made an entire movie on its own, has Carl as a kid, his jaw dropping to the floor in a movie theater as he watches a newsreel featuring famed adventurer Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer).
After leaving the theater and reenacting Muntz's quests he meets a fellow adventurer named Ellie. After that moment they become inseparable, until the very end.
In under ten minutes or so we watch entire lives unfold before our eyes. This sequence is done with such care, attention to detail, and guts (there is a small bit with a doctor that's perhaps up there with Bambi's mom's death in terms of emotional pain) that it's incredible how visually the filmmakers are able to convey so much.
We really don't need to listen to extensive dialogues to know when these characters are happy, sad, worried and mostly we never doubt why they are together.
But for every ounce of sentimentality and simplicity in the story, there is a deeper, slightly darker aspect that gives it equilibrium and makes it more human.
Because even if "Up" starts out as a tale of boundless love, it evolves into a melancholic ode to a feeling of incompleteness.
Every character in the film is missing something or someone, all of them are trying to get to someone who's out of reach.
Carl talks to his house and refers to her as Ellie, little Russell often talks about how he misses his dad (we can assume his parents are divorced), Muntz, is looking for the recognition he was denied during his prime.
There's also an exotic bird named Kevin in search of her babies and a talking dog named Dug (voiced by Bob Peterson) who is in constant search of someone to call master (his line of "I just met you and I love you" is one of the most heartwarming dialogue creations in recent memory).
In this way, the images of the film compliment the feeling of void within the characters. The landscapes in "Up" obviously had to be epic, and the animators (both in the 2D and 3D versions) make sure we feel like the young Carl watching newsreels.
But within all the beauty, detail (the textures have to be seen to be believed) and vibrancy they also infuse every frame with different codes and symbolisms.
From the very first scene when the house takes off we are overwhelmed by the magic of it all, but something also tugs at our hearts when we watch it hover above the city and into the clouds completely alone.
As the house first approaches an immense thunderstorm it transforms into a metaphor for each of the characters we will meet; all by themselves, going head on into the unknown.
The feeling of desolation and regret in the film feels Bergmanian in a way. Carl might as well be Professor Borg from "Wild Strawberries" looking back to his life to see where he went wrong and why he is where he is at the moment.
This is of course a Disney film, that perhaps doesn't mean for little children to be all existential on their way back home, and Carl achieves the redemption he needed to, literally, turn the pages of his own book forward.
There is also a Bergman sense of dualism in two of the main characters. It's suggested that Carl and Charles are two sides of the same coin (even their names come from the same etymological root which simply means "man"). Not only do they "meet" through cinema and media, which now more than ever have achieved postmodernist going on metaphysical ways of bonding complete strangers.
But they also share their old age and regret. Charles begins as a role model for Carl, but as the plot advances and we look back into their respective lives we find that they might have been influencing each other all the time (at least in our minds).
For all the adventures Charles has with exotic lands and far off places, Carl is also living "adventures" of his own in his life. Things that none of them will get to experience in the same way.
Ironically they both look at their lives with a sense of loss and with this we are reminded that life is about priorities. We can never live it all, but we have to make the most out of what we get.
"Up" is all about how life constantly drags us down, but nobody will leave the cinema walking on anything but clouds.