Opening 17 Sep 2009
The last time I saw a film in 3D, I had a huge headache from the funky glasses and had to close my eyes due to dizziness. After much fiddling with the 3-D projector, UP eventually took off 40 minutes after scheduled showing time, but it was worth the wait. The glasses have since evolved to Ray-Ban style as digital films go full-tilt on color and visual details in the third dimension.
Carl Fredricksen is a grumpy 78-year-old retired balloon salesman. His square face is framed with square glasses and age has pulled his mouth into a square frown, voiced by aptly-cast Ed Asner, whom I last heard reading the part of God in a spiritual novel. Grump or God, the first ten minutes of UP reveal the source of Carl's unhappiness: a lifetime of a married couple’s unfulfilled dreams is shown in a brilliantly done, silent vignette poignant enough to bring misty tears. From this melancholy state, the plot unfolds with no place to go but up…and everything from then on is a celebration of adventure, Pixar style. If you are going to make a film about a crabby old man that must choose between an old folks’ home or his last chance for chasing adventure via thousands of helium-filled balloons lifting his house out of its foundations, 3D makes perfect sense.
Carl’s journey takes off with some spectacular scenes chock full of appropriate shadows and color that will give you gasps of vertigo wonder. The feeling is a bit reminiscent of Dorothy’s mundane life until she gets sucked inside the cyclone funnel: a child’s imaginative adventure and enticing fear. The realistic scope of helium balloons fueling escape is at once naïve and yet plausible, thanks to the animation prowess on display. Yes, there really appear to be 20,000 colorful balloons on strings attached to the fireplace grate. Yes, the rope-steering tactics echo bits of Monty Python’s Meaning of Life geriatric pirate sequence. And yes, even the most skeptical adult in the audience will feel peacefully light floating with Carl towards South America to validate his late wife Ellie’s dreams of exploring the world. Optimistic hope is not lost, but strongly challenged, when Carl discovers accidental youth stowaway Russell (Jordan Nagai), a Weeble-like wilderness scout eager to earn his “assisting the elderly” merit badge. Much to my dismay, here the film reverts to Disney-esque pandering to children.
After landing near Paradise Falls (picture Angel Falls, Venezuela), the duo meets talking dogs, exotic birds and a childhood hero of Carl’s, a once-debonair explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). Muntz disappeared decades earlier in his zeppelin with promises to prove his purported discoveries to the world, and has since decayed into an obsessed old fogey. There is dog drama, a kidnapping and a funny-old-man fight scene atop the airship, all falling into a series of outlandish and far-fetched coincidences that drag UP down to hovering.
The first half of the film captures the 1920’s adventurous spirit of the Lindberg era and the sweeping sense of possibility both in script and presentation then downshifts into obvious present day Disney cuteness. Pixar excels in giving a great visual performance but ends up compromising the film to shoot for a universal audience instead of allowing the viewer to rise to the occasion. The best messages are delivered without the help of a chubby, lonely boy, dopey animal friends, or a pack of talking, snarling dogs. Co-directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson (Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo), UP starts superbly with the promise and wonder of Oz, then floats on with intermittent bursts of entertainment hot air. (Kirstan Böttger)