Still Flying High
How powerful are the folks at the Pixar Animation Studios? Their latest offering, Up, can possibly make you cry within the first 15 minutes. And all it's doing is filling in a back story. A youngster, Carl, hooked on the adventure reels of an explorer named Charles Muntz, finds a kindred spirit in another kid named Ellie. After depicting their first encounters, the picture fast-forwards through their eventual lives together, and it's filled with all the stuff of life -- little joys, little sadnesses, happiness and regret, and finally growing old. And the whole thing is so bittersweet, so unextraordinary, yet so touching because somehow it taps into our inner desires to see good, normal people get a chance to live a fulfilling life, and our sympathies when any of those people meet with misfortunes, however large or small. Here I was, welling up in watching a simple life story, and the movie proper hadn't even begun!
But when it does begin, it proves to be every bit the worthy follow-through. Carl is now a senior citizen (voiced by Ed Asner) on a tennis ball-shoed walker, living alone in the dream house he and his wife Ellie had built together. Unfortunately, the immediate area surrounding his house is being developed, and he's the lone holdout. At the end of his rope, he remembers the promise he made to his wife when they were kids -- to one day make it to Paradise Falls in South America, and live there in the midst of the land of adventure. So with that, he rigs his house with thousands of helium balloons and floats it into the sky, setting sail for the southern hemisphere, and unaware that a wilderness scout named Russell (voice of Jordan Nagai) has accidentally stowed away, soon to become his sidekick in this journey.
Up is another wonderful entry in the Pixar canon, this time directed by Monsters, Inc. helmer Pete Docter. I once again marvel at the creative team's ingenuity, and at their outright audacity when it comes to storytelling. The use of the flying house is a great example of how brilliantly they think outside the box. In any other movie, the story would have spent a lot of fuss in making the rigging of the balloons a main plot point, as in, how did Carl come up with the idea and be able to actually rig the whole thing together, with the payoff being that the house can actually fly. But nope, not here -- the house's ability to fly is pretty much an afterthought -- subtly, we can tell where the idea came from, and from there it just works, and we accept it. Make no mistake, the flying house is presented as a fantastic sight, but clearly, in terms of story and theme, it's being used as means to an end, and not as an end in itself.
Actually, as it turns out, the house serves mainly as an ingenious visual metaphor. The back story given to Carl gives color and flesh to what he has lost, and what has eluded him throughout life. Up gradually reveals itself to be about Carl being able to let go and move on. When he and Russell reach South America, Carl's goal is to settle the house right on top of Paradise Falls, but they land a way away from it, so the two use the garden hose to tether the floating house to themselves. Thus, most of the time we see Carl literally dragging the burden of his past over his back and floating over his head. There's a moment later when some of the balloons pop and the weight of the house becomes the heaviest, coinciding with the moment where Carl gives in the most to the lost ghosts of his past. This metaphor continues throughout the movie, and to elaborate more might be to give things away, so suffice it to say it's used effectively, incredibly, memorably.
As usual, a Pixar movie also includes plenty of humor to go along with its profundity, and this one reaches surreal proportions once our heroes encounter dogs who wear these sci-fi collars that translate their thoughts into English (or other languages, as one gag shows us). Not only is Dug the dog (voice of co-director Bob Peterson) very funny, thanks to some awkward, direct translating of dog brain-droppings ("My name is Dug. I have just met you, and I love you."), one of the villainous dogs had me laughing longer than I can remember. I won't describe it, you'll just have to see it. The usual blend of comedy and pathos, action and sentiment are all here, and it's a great time to be had.
One must wonder, though, can this, shall we say, tonal predictability be considered a relative weakness in the company's storytelling? There were some things I knew were going to happen, and the sentimental coda strategy used during the credits sequence, though effective, was starting to feel corny to me. Pixar movies are great because they've become extremely adroit at pushing the same buttons that work on us over and over again. Will there be a point where I would rather have them push different buttons? Maybe not anytime soon. Despite any small reservations I came up with, I expected to and did thoroughly enjoy Up -- the positives simply far outweigh the negatives in a movie like this. I ask myself -- would any other studio have greenlighted such a story, about an old man who uses balloons to float himself to South America and have it actually be about his moving on to the next stage in his life? And my answer is, "no way." That's why Pixar is still the best American movie studio running today, 10 feature films strong and never letting up.
(Released by Buena Vista Pictures and rated "PG" for some peril and action.)
Review also posted at www.windotothemovies.com .