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Pixar’s “Up” received some truly outstanding reviews during its theatrical run earlier this year, marking itself out as a Best Picture contender in this new era of expanded awards nominations. My own relationship with Pixar has thus far been a pleasurable one, with the exception of 1998’s “A Bug’s Life” I’ve found their output over the years to be staggeringly brilliant, I’m even a self professed fan of “Cars”. So it was a surprise that I wasn’t completely enamored with “Up”, I liked it sure, but never whilst watching it did I feel like I was viewing an animated masterwork. The characters and narrative just seem a tad weaker than most of Pixar’s previous offerings. I should make myself clear in this early stage of the review that I did have a genuinely good time with the film….it’s just….you know…not quite the mind-blowing family spectacle the hype had promised.
“Up” follows Carl Frederickson (Ed Asner) a curmudgeonly old fellow who’s house is being built around by corporate tyrants, needing only Carl’s property to create the commercialized whole their project demands. In the opening 10 minutes it’s revealed that Carl once had a loving if not occasionally tragic life with his deceased wife Ellie, the house their last remaining bond on Earth. After an unfortunate accident in which a workman is injured through Carl’s emotional pairing with the place he ends up losing his house, and is forced into the unappealing Retirement home way of life. However in a bid to evade this future he concocts a devilish plan to visit a lost land in South America that he and Ellie always dreamed about, whilst taking the house with him.
Attaching thousands of Helium balloons to the property he takes to the sky bringing an unwitting but enthusiastic youngster called Russell (Jordan Nagai) with him. Together they make it to South America and head to the Waterfall that Ellie always wanted to see, meeting along the way an assortment of crazy animals and an explorer gone mad in his pursuit of a mythical local beast.
From a visual perspective “Up” is every bit as beautiful and unique as previous Pixar works, even offering 3-D for added admiration if the viewer is so inclined. Yet I could almost be certain the wonderfully lavish animation looses nothing without the third dimension, the art and character design in “Up” is something truly magical to behold. Pixar have long established themselves as wizards in both the storytelling and CGI departments, “Up” cementing both statuses to a certain degree. Certainly I was more impressed with the look of the product on this occasion, something this blatantly goofy and zany translating beautifully and providing a delightful burst of observable pleasure. The movie is a massively colorful orgy of unparalleled frenzy and craziness, from an aesthetic standpoint the work in “Up” can’t be faulted.
To say the characterization in “Up” is anything less than good would be harsh, yet the central figures are a cut below the very strongest Pixar cohorts. Carl is well voiced by Ed Asner and is ultimately presented as an emotionally complex individual with a deadpan sensibility, but as a lead he lacks the charm or fizzle of a Buzz or a Woody. Thanks to some mature plot devices and a delightful flashback at the beginning it’s not hard to sympathize with him, and yes, as a character he’s commendably three dimensional. However does he evoke the sense of underdog heroism or old school charisma that even Wall-E netted? Not really……he’s a solid hero just not a remarkable one. The voice work is good from the other supporting figures, though in “Up” they’re a group mined heavily for comedy. To a certain extent it might be possible to find some emotional hook within Russell’s persona (he scores bigger on laughs than tears) but otherwise it’s straight up goof-balling from the other eccentrics.
“Up” deserves recognition for its pursuit of more complex and adult themes, Pixar’s interest in the human spirit what ultimately separates them from the like of DreamWorks. “Up” does some courageous work (especially in the first half) with its leading man, drawing him out to be a true cinematic presence, rather than a mere cartoon character. This complex emotional undercurrent is what really gives the movie its fire, the narrative more amiable than outright immense. For a Pixar movie boasting such visual creativity I was surprised how unremarkable and predictable the central plot arc was, without the sound characterizations and lush visuals “Up” would be dabbling dangerously close to the realms of mediocrity. The jokes are frequent and certainly far contrasted from last year’s “Wall-E”, this time Pixar actively seeking chuckles from the silliest of sources. Again the more mature viewer should appreciate the subtler humor offered by Carl, but the energetic and bonkers laughs being mined from the supporting players come from a school of comedy much more in tone with universally appealing comedic values.
I liked “Up” and am keen to see it again, if more than anything to confirm it as a playful if not flawed addition to Pixar’s filmography. It remains a safe bet for a motion picture to keep all family members entertained and stays a beat or two ahead of the DreamWorks crew thanks to its fine tuned emotional detail. However if this is the first Pixar movie to get a best picture nomination I’ll be a little unsettled because whilst it might be damned good, it’s not their masterpiece.
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