Up (2009)

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Not only does Up hold a long-standing place in my heart as my favorite Pixar film, it just might be my favorite animated film, period. It might be a slightly prosaic choice (as a independent movie enthusiast and borderline film snob, shouldn’t I pick something more obscurely cutting edge, maybe a mind-blowing, little-known Asian Anime?) but frankly, I don’t give a crap. It’s just that good.

My advice to the uninitiated is this- if you haven’t seen “Up”, stop reading this review right now and rent it, stream it, splurge on a purchase if you have to. Take your kid, take a friend’s kid, take yourself. It isn’t just ‘another kids movie,’ it’s got a huge spectrum of emotions and it sports one of the most beautiful opening sequences in film, period.

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Laughter, feels, and tears are all on naked display in this testament to childhood dreams and adulthood regrets as we follow elderly widower Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) and chubby eight-year-old Wilderness Explorer Russell (Jordan Nagai) on the adventure of a lifetime. Carl, age seventy-eight, is a man with a lifelong dream; to take his wife Ellie to the site of their childhood obsession, the exotic and magical Paradise Falls.

We see a sequence with Ellie and Carl as children discovering their mutual interest in visiting Paradise Falls followed by a beautiful montage of the couple growing old together, which ends, sadly and perhaps inevitably, in Ellie’s deterioration and death (gently but heartbreakingly portrayed in a few oblique scenes of a hospital stay and Carl sitting, alone and dejected, next to the casket after the funeral.)

An undetermined amount of time passes following Ellie’s death, and Carl has grown into the quintessential grumpy old man, still grieving for his wife and his own inability to take her to Paradise Falls. When a rage-fueled mishap lands Carl on the direct route to a nursing home, the retired balloon salesman ties thousands of colorful balloons to his quaint little house and- surprise!- sails away before the rest home attendants who have arrived to take him away’s very eyes.

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There’s one little problem… Russell, the Wilderness Explorer kid determined to get his final badge for assisting the elderly, who in the process of pestering Carl gets stuck on the front porch when the house sets sail. After landing (rather conveniently) in Paradise Falls, Carl and Russell encounter talking dogs, including the sweet but dim Retriever Dug (Bob Peterson,) a sexually ambiguous exotic bird, but also a maniacal villain (Christopher Plummer) intent on taking what he believes is rightfully his.

Along the way, the sheltered Russell traverses the wilderness for the first time in his life, but is is Carl who learns lessons about bravery, letting go, and moving on from unfathomable grief. The irresistible Dug offers plenty of comic relief, and an unbreakable bond is forged between man and boy, man and dog, triggering a significant change in Carl’s attitude toward himself and life in general.

You know the old adage, ‘it will make you laugh and cry?’ It’s a bit stereotypical, but “Up” is one of the few movies that actually lives up to that saying. It’s heartfelt, funny, and surprisingly deep for a kids movie. But that’s just the thing. It isn’t just for kids, it appeals to all ages with it’s genuinely emotive storytelling, bright and textured animation, and timeless story of hope and renewal triumphing over resignation and bitterness.

“Up” is cute and charming, as lovable as holding a squirming puppy in your arms, but it never stoops to kitsch or silliness, or God forbid, being TOO cute (like the maudlin “Precious Moments” statuettes that are ubiquitous on aging Mormons’ mantelpieces.) Instead of sinking to the level of Saturday-Morning cartoon slapstick, “Up” takes a real human story and infuses it with extraordinary elements (an airborne house, dogs with collars that cause them to speak and quip like human beings.)

The fact that it’s not the other way around (a fantastical story with realistic features slapped on as an afterthought) is a very important distinction to make. Only a viewer with a heart of solid granite could remain dry-eyed through this film’s heartrending first twenty minutes, but it is by no means a bleak film. It’s a celebration of life, and what all of us have to offer to  and beyond the point of old age. We recognize the characters not as cartoons, but as manifestations of our own longings and emotions; and that humanity- the kind of feeling that transcends the majority of animated films- is what makes “Up” so special.

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One thought on “Up (2009)”

  1. I’m glad you mentioned the opening sequence. That’s pure storytelling. I have never seen it done better. And you’re right, it’s real with fantastical elements rather than the other way around, and it all works perfectly no matter what age you are.

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