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Up Is the Direction of Pixar’s Mountainous Bar

Directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson
Written by Peterson
Disney, 2009

I’ve always wondered when Pixar would finally stumble.  For me, they never have.  Some people in this world have said it already happened, perhaps with Cars.  I’ve even heard Monsters, Inc.  But if you are one to think that Pixar has ever stumbled, it would be hard to argue that the latest of their films, like The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and WALL-E, haven’t improved on their earlier success.  Normally, if we see an entity at the top of their game, we start to see a decline and then the inevitable crash.  But it’s been 14 years, and since their incredible debut with Toy Story, Pixar keeps finding a way to get better.

In fact, with their last few films (and I do exclude Cars even though I liked it very much and put it in my top 12 of 2006), it looks like Pixar has decided to become the most ambitious film company working today.  Because Pixar’s motto involves “Story First,” they’ve always been right in my wheelhouse.  Whenever I feel depressed that all the kids come up to me and say “Transformers was the best movie ever” and I think that people skew towards the futuristic inhabitants of Idiocracy, it is refreshing to know that not only does Pixar make brilliant films, but they are also popular.  The connection between brilliance and popularity has mostly been severed over the years.

In Up, we see Carl Frederickson (Ed Asner) and how he grew up idolizing an explorer by the name of Charles Muntz.  He meets fellow adventurer Ellie, and a friendship is made that turns to romance later in life.  And with Pixar’s great use of images (and no dialogue), we see that Ellie grows into womanhood unable to conceive, and lives life dedicated to be a loving wife until old age, where she dies before her husband.  One of her childhood dreams was to take the old, decrepit house in which she had her adventures to South America and live there the rest of her days, noted by her adventuring scrapbook, which Carl looks at with a certain loss.

The house is in danger from a development project.  In fact, it is surrounded by city, out of place in the once-suburb.  When the cold, heartless developer finds a way to remove Carl from his home, Carl unleashes thousands of balloons tied from his fireplace to uproot the house and make it fly, hopefully, to South America and fulfill a supreme wish of his dead wife.  However, this peaceful trip immediately has company: A Junior Adventurer named Russell (Jordan Nagai) who is looking to earn his Elderly Assistance badge, finds his way onto the porch before the house flies off, and being a kid, he’s not ready to be a silent partner on this trip.

Eventually the balloon does get close to its destination, and they are immediately joined by a giant peacock/ostrich that has been evading a bunch of angry dogs (one, Alpha, played by writer/director Peterson, and another, Beta, by Delroy Lindo) and Most Dangerous Game-style traps.  Russell befriends the bird and calls it Kevin, even though we find out it is actually a female and is constantly in danger trying to feed her young.  Carl doesn’t want the new intruder at all, but despite being a resilient old man, is still a bit too old and tired to do anything about it though he half-heartedly tries.  Soon, another would-be friend joins their group, an affable mutt named Dug (also Peterson) with a collar that translates what he’s thinking and saying, and the main source of a tremendous amount of humor that the film offers.

Eventually we find out that Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), who was disgraced when it was found out that bones from a mythical creature he had brought back from an earlier trip were proved to be fake, went back to South America to officially find the creature and only return when he had actual proof, has been living there for decades searching for what amounts to his Moby Dick.  He’s trained a great army of dogs (all with the translator collars) to help him find it, but has been completely unsuccessful.  When he stumbles on the house-moving crew and finds out that Russell has befriended the bird, Muntz officially becomes the chief antagonist of the story, putting the bird and the house in danger.

First off, this movie is hilarious.  Probably the greatest creation to come out of the Dreamworks Animation library is the penguins from Madagascar.  Here, Pixar has their penguins: the dogs of Up provide some of the funniest stuff in any of their ten total films.  There is also a great, great joke involving Carl allowing Russell to dangle from a tied-up bed sheet while the house hovers at a dizzying height over the city below that might have you laughing through to the next scene.  And here’s that old Hollywood magic I’m talking about: Pixar takes Carl’s walker, a four-pronged extendable with four tennis balls attached, and uses it to great effect in many scenes, evoking your old Charlie Chaplin/Buster Keaton ingenuity.

It goes without saying that Pixar also infuses this film with the emotional warmth that we’ve come to expect from all of their pictures.  If I had to compare Up to WALL-E, I would give Up the slight edge, if only because the entire film is consistently great from beginning to end, whereas WALL-E stumbled ever so slightly towards its end.  Here’s hoping that Up does more than its expected business during its run, it’s an instant classic.

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