UP got Harry incredibly UP!!!
Masterpiece is such an over used phrase when it comes to PIXAR – because if very nearly every film is either almost a masterpiece, a simple masterpiece or a heartbreakingly brilliant masterpiece – the meaning is drained from the word and the only adjective I’m left with to describe one their films is to simply state… it is a Pixar Movie – and that carries the weight of its own realized expectations.
UP isn’t quite the film that I thought it was. About 4 days ago – an Austin friend ran into me at CHUYs after she had gotten into the UP screening – and stated how much she was looking forward to it, but she was slightly nervous having seen the 45 minutes we’d seen at BNAT over 6 months ago. What if it doesn’t live up? And all of a sudden a thought hit me. What if they kill Carl? The old man. What if they build that character up and kill him?
I got nervous. Very nervous. In the first 45 minutes – I had already formed an attachment that made me think of Carl as an amalgam of my own father and grandfather – and are they going to carve my heart out? Will they kill every boy & girl’s grandfather on screen and force the little kids to grapple with the weight of simple mortality?
Worse. Will they reawaken that fear in me?
PIXAR films flirt with dangerous territory, but often guide us in the general direction of security and the hope of a happy ending. However, there was something about that first 45 minutes that had me feel that there could be a dark twist ahead.
And I was right about the dark twist, only… not exactly, but incredibly satisfied.
CARL is an old man. He comes from a great generation – having had a long and happy life with the woman of his dreams. Now he’s on his last days, he feels alienated by the world beyond his house. Closed in by the booming society that has supplanted his old neighborhood in lieu of skyscrapers and suits. His life has apparently been fairly uneventful, but filled and powered by childhood dreams.
You remember those. The dreams you had as a child that perhaps many of you followed for an indeterminate period of time, before realizing that you didn’t have the math and science to be an astronaut – and the space program has never been as ambitious as a little boy’s dreams… at least it hasn’t been since I was a small boy. In the contest for tickets – I had people that dreamt of being comic artists, film critics, torch singers in smoky clubs, Pixar animators, archeologists, President and so on. There were the folks that wanted to bio-engineer dinosaurs and mythological creatures, that wanted to be bit by a radioactive spider or realize that they came from the planet Krypton – and in a lot of the replies there was a sadness about themselves. Even though there were many youngsters – much younger than me – they already felt the compromise of a realistic life. A life where bills grow, accidents and health create debt and jobs can be lost. But they’re also blessed with families they love, a boyfriend, girlfriend, husband or wife – and they’ve found a life they love that they couldn’t have dreamt of as a kid, because kids rarely dream maturely.
I know this seems off topic, but in reality – the first 45 minutes deals with a lot of these sorts of issues. It does it with an economy of exposition that will shame most every screenwriter in the business. They show us life, rather than explain it. They show us love, regret, ambition, loss and the power of dreams without ever verbalizing a single conversation. It is… frankly humbling.
There are no long pointless sequences that abandons our main characters in place of a pop culture gag that does not advance the story – and frankly – that’s the biggest difference between PIXAR and just about everyone else. They understand humor inherent to the material and the story – and they realize that it is all about buying into these characters – and that the character isn’t just Carl Fredricksen… but little Russell – the Wilderness Explorer looking for his ASSISTING THE ELDERLY badge.
In the first 45 minutes, I didn’t know if I believed in his character or not. I was fond of him. I liked him, but I wondered if he was ever going to be more than his uniform and age. Would they explore what makes the sidekick character need a side to kick from? Yes, they do. And it isn’t a softball pitch either. It has the emotional resonance every bit the equal of Mr Fredricksen. There’s a reason behind this boy’s passions – and a reason for his over-compensating need to please. And it absolutely makes the film soar higher than it’s fictional house and balloons.
The structure of the film is based in many ways upon two of my favorite RKO films that were filmed concurrently. KING KONG and THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME. Even though the first act plays much more like the first act of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Like KING KONG – it takes our characters about 45 minutes to get to the “island” or the “Escarpment” that this film has as its reality based fantasy locale.
In that 45 minutes – they introduce our main characters, create their initial bonds and conflicts – and gives them a reason for their adventure. In this way – it also reminds one of THE WIZARD OF OZ – especially with the montage STORM sequence that is very very evocative of that classic Tornado sequence – minus silly things going by the window.
Once they reach the Escarpment – they find they’ve landed in an area on the opposite side from where Carl’s wife had dreamt of their “club house” being – and suddenly Carl and Russell must FITZCARRALDO that house to its proper place. Along the way they meet an amazing bird that Russell names KEVIN and a talking dog that informs him that his name is DUG – voiced by UP writer and co-director Bob Peterson with sublime perfection.
And it is that much that was screened at BNAT in rough story board, early rough animation and some close to finished animation. Finished – this period of the film has introduced us to our main characters and our place of action and purpose of action. In very nearly the next scene – we’re introduced to a whole lot of conflict and a great deal of unforeseen situations.
My favorite of these involves the other human character of the vanished great explorer that Carl worshipped with his wife… CHARLES MUNTZ – voiced by Christopher Plummer – but evoking a visual check from Kirk Douglas by way of Leslie Banks’ Count Zaroff. Like in that last reference’s movie – there’s a point during dinner where everything about the direction of the film turns. And it does turn dark.
Not so dark as to warp children – but definitely it turns into a film where life is risked and lost and it is tense as hell. Spoiling the last act of the film would be a crime. Mainly because it unfolds so beautifully, so perfectly that it just makes you cheer. There really seems like there’s nothing left unexplored – and I can’t believe just how good it all comes together.
Many people were critical of the last act of WALL-E, and while I get what they’re talking about – I disagree. The last act of UP is supremely entertaining in the kind of way that the last act of MONSTERS, INC and FINDING NEMO and TOY STORY 2 end. The relationships and situations are all absolutely earned through the empathy that the film builds with the characters, the economy of exposition and through tension.
In fact – the dinner scene for some reason evoked the meeting scene in OUT OF THE PAST with Mitchum and Douglas… only imagine if Jack Lemmon & Walter Matthau’s love child (Carl voiced by Ed Asner) was facing off against an elderly Kurt Douglas (pre-stroke). It is shot with heavy film noir-esque shadows and the nefarious reveal has the weight of that great turn scene of Count Zaroff. It is at this point that the film just doesn’t stop. Suddenly – we’re in full on chase/threat/rescue/hero/helpless/panic excitement mode!
Because you care about the characters I found myself near breathless through these action scenes, which have the gleeful invention of a great Nick Park action sequence!
After the film – the audience was glowing. It was as if each and every last one of us were 3 feet tall, tiptoeing into our childhood living room on Christmas morning and found our heart’s desire with a big bow on it and with balloons! Lots of balloons. This film isn’t a specified fetish film like MONSTERS, INC, THE INCREDIBLES, WALL-E, CARS, TOY STORY, A BUG’S LIFE or even RATATOUILLE. This is a human adventure primarily – without the obvious childhood fetish item. The fanciful elements concern talking dog collars, giant crazy bird critter and a balloon powered floating house. Otherwise – you’re dealing with humans – humans that have been hurt, have desires, motivations and problems. And nothing could be better.
With STAR TREK, UP and DRAG ME TO HELL – this May we have 3 completely different types of perfect BIG films. And I’ll be damned if I can figure out from a single viewing which I love most! And that is something I find incredibly fortunate to be afflicted with.
That I’m talking about KING KONG, OUT OF THE PAST, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, FITZCARRALDO along with the best of Pixar’s films… well it tells you how fondly I regard this film. Pete Docter has made another incredibly wonderful PIXAR film!
P.S. I’ll be writing a separate piece on PARTLY CLOUDY, the short film that preceded the feature later tonight… possibly. It is possibly the most iconic short they’ve yet made. But like I said – more on that later!