tongue-tied lightning

Up (Docter, 2009)
May 29, 2009, 11:02 PM
Filed under: film


What is it that makes Pixar’s films so consistently great?  Is it the intelligence they treat the audience with?  Is it the lack of attempted “hipness” and irony that seperates them from Dreamworks?  Perhaps it’s the fact that they are willing to tell unique stories and not just regurgitate the same tired formulas most blockbusters are still employing year after year.

Up has all these qualities and more.  Perhaps the most impressive thing about Pixar’s most recent films is the complete mastery of craft.  When conjuring up awards ballots the last few years, Pixar’s films have routinely been in the top five for Directing, Editing, Cinematography and Score.  I see no reason to change that up this year.

The opening of Up is rivaled in Pixar’s canon only by the opening half hour of Wall-E.  After a short homage to Citizen Kane we are introduced to Carl Frederickson (voiced by Ed Asner) and we tag along as he meets his childhood sweetheart.  Then a brilliantly edited and scored montage takes us through the course of their relationship.  Several decades passed over in about 10 minutes.  This is pure filmmaking.

It reminded me of the scene in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas when Travis and his son watch old home videos.  The brevity of the clips along with the lack of sound seems to lend them more weight, perhaps bring them closer to how we actually remember things.  Like the opening of Wall-E the silent storytelling is heavily influenced by Chaplin.  Also like Wall-E, it is the peak of the film.

That is not to suggest there is a significant drop-off in quality.  Carl Frederickson is possibly the greatest character Pixar has developed, even if he doesn’t inhabit their best film.  His journey to self-discovery and the development of his relationship with Russell, a “Wilderness Explorer” who unintentionally tags along with him on his adventure, are both beautifully realized.

The film does have a few weaknesses.  Christopher Plummer’s villain may not be entirely believable.  His turn from good to evil happens at the drop of a hat, and his motivations don’t always seem sufficient enough to justify his actions.  Also, while I loved Dug, the evil dogs seemed a bit much, especially when they became fighter pilots. Fortunately, neither of these had much impact on me.  They don’t tarnish Carl’s arc, which is the heart of the film.  And once you suspend your disbelief you have to admit talking dogs flying fighter planes is pretty freaking cool (did I mention this might be Pixar’s funniest film?)

The image we’ve all seen in the advertising with the old man carrying his house through the jungle on his back is the crux of the film.  Literally a man afraid to let his past go and beholden to it.  Russell also has had a troubled past, but it seems to serve him more as a motivation than a hurdle.  Neither situation is pounded into your head, and the absence of heavy-handedness lend their respective epiphanies added weight.

Pixar’s films have always been adventuresome.  They almost require you to let your guard down and surrender to the flow, and as such take you on the journeys other blockbusters can only show you.  They always have been more than just entertainments, but Up may be the deepest they’ve probed into the human condition.  Certainly it’s only rival in that department is Wall-E which as of now is the only Pixar I would call “better.”


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