Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Review: Up

The question of whether or not the new film from Pixar Animation Studios is any good is a moot one.  Of course it's good.  So far, Pixar's track record is ten for ten.  The debate rages on about Cars and A Bug's Life, but nobody will argue that they aren't at least well-crafted, if certainly not instant classics.  At this point, the question with Pete Docter's Up is instead how good is it?

Up shares a lot in common with Monsters, Inc., Docter's previous film, both in general quality and the way in which it tugs at the heartstrings.  Like Ratatouille and WALL-E before it, Up deals in a more sophisticated range of emotions that will almost certainly hit adults like a sledgehammer.  At the same time, the film balances its emotional weight with some truly weird humor and all sorts of sight gags that'll keep the kids laughing.

The film opens with perhaps one of the best montages ever put to film.  We follow an adventurous young boy named Carl as he meets his new best friend, an equally adventurous girl named Ellie.  From there, we watch the two plan for an adventure, only to give in to the slow march of time and the realities of life. After Ellie dies, urban construction threatens to take Carl's house, so rather than be put in a nursing home, Carl vows to take the trip he and Ellie always dreamed about: to Paradise Falls in South America.  From there, you've seen the trailers.  Carl and a stowaway boy scout named Russell fly off to South America in Carl's house, fitted with hundreds of balloons.

From there, not only does the plot get kinda strange, it also starts to fall apart a bit.  The journey that Carl and Russell take is never in question.  They go to South America, make an unexpected friend, meet an unexpected villian, and hijinks ensue.  Up's greatest strength lies in its ability to mine unexpected depth from characters in such wacky circumstances.  Without going into too many spoilers, Carl becomes a sort of father-figure to two characters, Russell and a talking dog named Dug.  That dichotomy of mentor/protege is what drives the second half of the story (not to mention the presence of talking dogs).

However, interesting though all that might be, the plot itself can't evenly support such weirdness.  I guess you could call the narrative a series of curveballs, because the plot does go exactly where you think it'll go, but the surprise is in how much time the film spends on any one part of the story.  Personally, I thought Carl's journey to Paradise Falls would be the driving force of the movie.  Instead, he and Russell make it there fairly quickly.  There was never any question that it would happen, but the way the film gets from point A to point B is a bit maddening.  I'm glad that my expectations were warped somewhat; I guess what I'm saying is that there has to have been a better way of pulling that off.

All narrative clunkiness aside, Up is a fantastic piece of animation.  If you don't leave the theater quoting Dug or the other dogs, you'll be marveling at the artistry behind Carl Fredrickson's facial stubble, or at the very least talking about how cute the short before the film, "Partly Cloudy", was.  It's wonderful to finally have a film this summer to rave about, however mildly.  Compared to some of the in-your-face explosionfests so far this summer, Up is a welcome hour and a half of fresh air.  (Heh.)

4 stars ( smilesmilesmilesmile ) out of five.

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