First off, let me put this straight: Pixar’s “Up is the best summer release so far; a joyful, funny, effervescent tale of vanished dreams and second chances, painted with broad brushstrokes of gorgeous colors and striking visual grace.
The glowing reviews and box-office receipts say it all: 97 percent positive reviews as counted by rottentomatoes.com and a domestic gross of more than $200 million in three weeks. By the end of its theatrical run, “Up is projected to become Pixar’s second biggest commercial success to date, right behind 2003’s “Finding Nemo.
Yet despite the usual far-reaching energetic buzz surrounding Pixar films, “Up left me a tad cold. I did like it, was deeply moved by Carl’s plight and was amused by the frivolous Russell and Dug. What happens near the end of “Up is typical not only of Pixar or Disney films, but of American mainstream cinema in general: a traditional late conflict, followed by a climactic battle scene and a neat ending.
Amidst all this noise, the initial premise of the story gets lost, and so does the magic of the astounding first 20 minutes.
The film begins with one of the sweetest, most tender romances I’ve seen of late. Little Carl is an adorably, gawky kid with gigantic aviator goggles who aspires to be an explorer; a passion he shares with a bright, high-spirited young girl called Ellie.
Together, they fantasize about exploring the world one day, spending countless hours watching newsreels of world famous eccentric adventurer Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer) known for his legendary expeditions in Venezuela. When his discoveries are accused of being unauthentic, he goes into self-exile in South America, vowing not to return until he brings back living creatures to prove his critics wrong.
In a silent four-minute long montage, we see Ellie and Carl growing up happily together, getting married and building a small house. They continue to yearn for their childhood dream, but domestic life eventually takes its toll. Like real life, Ellie and Carl’s marriage is colored with moments of happiness and sorrow. Carl becomes a balloon vendor and Ellie discovers she’s infertile, leaving him in wretched loneliness when she passes away.
The silent montage is simply filmmaking at its best: poignant, beautiful, economic in narrative and heartbreaking. It’s not just a great interlude; it’s one of the finest sequences Pixar has submitted on film.
For Carl, life somehow stops after Ellie’s demise. He grows into an indifferent, grouchy old loner with no company except for an archaic TV set. As the world around him rapidly moves on, Carl defiantly stands still – but not for long.
Carl’s house becomes the last remaining relic of a perishing suburban neighborhood. After being forced to check into a home for the elderly following a spat with a construction worker, Carl attaches an incalculable number of gloriously mottled balloons to his house and takes off to Paradise Falls, his dream destination.
His solitary journey is disrupted by an inadvertently stowaway kid named Russell, a cute, pudgy and over-zealous Asian-American wilderness explorer seeking to earn the missing badge needed to become a senior scoutmaster.
On their journey to Paradise Falls, the pair bumps into a multicolored 13-foot flightless bird with a taste for chocolate, a loveable, overweight golden retriever-Labrador mutt with a collar on his neck that verbalizes his canine language, and an unexpected villain.
The real motif behind Carl’s journey is never revealed, simply because he himself doesn’t know. Is he attempting to fulfill his childhood dream, seeking a closure for his mourning, or settling for a secluded place where he can rest in peace with his memories?
Carl is figuratively and physically bound to his house, chained to memories, regrets and a colossal loss. What he ultimately finds in Russell is not only a newfound sense of hope, but the son he never had.
Like Carl, Russell is a lonely kid with a constantly absent father and a neglecting stepmother. Unlike the old man, Russell is a caring and affectionate kid whose courage and love breaks Carl’s material, emotional and social chains.
The dynamic of the relationship between the pair is the fundamental block of the story and the reason why “Up, despite its many flaws, is an exceptional entry in the Pixar canon.
The emotions “Up bespeaks are real, heartfelt and pure. Carl’s near-existential dilemma is not rendered in a bluntly articulated fashion like most American films. The thoughtful framing and calculated expressions on his face translate his anguish better than the most refined of dialogues.
The same can’t be said of the artificial subplots that distract from the main story-line. I must admit that the talking dogs are hilarious, but overall, I didn’t care much for them; same thing for Kevin, the bird, whom I found to be annoying after a while.
The film’s biggest turn-off is its unavoidable mechanical descend to third-act conventions that Pixar has rarely eluded. As soon as the villain enters the picture, I couldn’t wait for director Pete Docter to return to the main plot. He does eventually, but too briefly as the tender comic drama of the first half is swapped for a strictly bombastic adventure.
Since Pixar emerged in 1995 with “Toy Story, several comparisons have been made with the Disney-owned studio and Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki (“My Neighbor Totoro, “Spirited Away ); particularly since Pixar has always admitted that its productions are highly influenced by Miyazaki’s films.
There’s no denying that Pixar has elevated American animation to unprecedented heights, and in “Ratatouille and “Toy Story 2, they produced two of the best family masterpieces of the past two decades. Yet, and despite their best efforts, Pixar lags behind Miyazaki and his Ghibli studio.
Miyazaki films represent a world of their own; boundless landscapes of colors and imagination that, unlike Pixar, have never succumbed to the temptation of conventions. The spellbinding innocence, lack of villains and unpredictable stories that always venture into virgin territories are the hallmarks of Miyazaki; qualities that Pixar struggles to match.
Pixar is operating on a different level, scouring through American film heritage (nods to “Citizen Kane, “It’s a Wonderful Life and even “About Schmidt are sprinkled throughout “Up ) to produce a thrilling cinema that embraces its origins instead of shunning them.
There is indeed something quite amiable in the core familiarity of Pixar’s stories; a quality that characterizes the best of the American entertainment. Yet, although they’ve relentlessly aimed for creating original characters and premises, the way Pixar’s stories develop and end are often the same. In this specific department, Pixar has taken little chances.
Blame it on my European/art-house sensibilities, but I wish that “Up could’ve been quieter, expanding the relationship between Carl and Russell instead of opting to focus on standard action.
I’m still rooting for Pixar and will definitely stand in line like every year for their next picture. I can’t help but acknowledge though that my excitement for their films is gradually evaporating.