by Mel Valentin
"Up," Pixar Animation Studios’ tenth feature-length film and their first to utilize Disney Digital 3-D technology, once again melds the cutting edge computer animation and the character-centered storytelling that’s made Pixar the preeminent animation studio and a global brand. Co-written and directed by Pete Docter, best known as the writer-director of "Monsters, Inc.," Pixar’s fourth film, "Up" film just as emotionally and thematically resonant as "Monsters, Inc." (if not more so). Docter and his writing partner, Bob Peterson (who also receives a co-directing credit and voices a key secondary character), should set aside the Academy Awards next spring so they can pick up the Best Animated Film Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.Up follows Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Edward Asner), a 78 year-old former balloon salesman, Carl still clings to his memories of his late wife, Ellie, memories reflected in the house they once owned together and in the knick-knacks and other mementos they collected over the years. Bereft, but with nowhere to go, Carl clings stubbornly to his house, refusing to sell the house to a local developer who’s purchased every lot in the neighborhood except Carl’s. After a surprisingly violent outburst, Carl faces the prospect of losing his home permanently and being forced into a retirement home. Carl, however, refuses to acquiesce, instead installing 10,000 helium-filled balloons from his chimney and floating, flying away to Paradise Falls, Venezuela, the last known location for one-time explorer and adventurer, Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) and a destination Ellie dreamed of visiting, but never did.
"Pixar perfect (again)."
The still grieving Carl, however, isn’t counting on Russell (Jordan Nagai), an effusively enthusiastic Junior Wilderness Explorer desperate to obtain his “assisting the elderly” badge, the last badge he'll need to become a Senior Wilderness Explorer. Although he’s an inadvertent stowaway, Russell proves eager to join Carl on his adventures. Carl doesn't want the company or the responsibility, but when a storm hits, Carl and Russell are forced to work together. The storm, however, helps them reach Venezuela and the plateau faster than expected. Far from Paradise Falls and with the helium slowly leaking from the balloons, Carl and Russell head for the falls, the floating house tethered to their backs. Almost immediately, Carl and Russell encounter a multi-hued, feathered prehistoric bird that Russell dubs Kevin, Dug (Bob Peterson), an overly friendly, well-fed dog equipped with an electronic collar that expresses his random, stream-of-consciousness thoughts, and a collar-equipped dog pack led by Alpha (Peterson again), a Doberman Pinscher with a broken voice box.
Docter and Peterson created memorable, “rounded” characters in Carl, Russell, Muntz, and Dug. Physically, Docter and Peterson modeled Muntz on Kirk Douglas and Errol Flynn (with a touch of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.). For Carl, Peterson and Doctor borrowed Spencer Tracey’s abundance of white hair and prominent jaw, but otherwise created a unique character, albeit one with Ed Asner’s famously cantankerous disposition. While Russell might not be the first Asian-American character in an animated film (Disney’s Mulan got there first), he’s the first major Asian-American character in a Pixar film. Where Carl and Muntz are angular, a conscious decision by Docter and Peterson to mirror their limitations, Russell is oval-shaped to subtlety echo his openness to new experiences (he’s eight after all).
For inspiration, Docter and Peterson drew on The Lost World, Arthur Conan Doyle’s (Sherlock Holmes) 1913 novel and subsequent adaptations, including the 1925 version that featured stop-motion dinosaurs created by Willis O’Brien (King Kong, Mighty Joe Young), both for the Muntz character, clearly modeled on the proto-Indiana Jones hero Professor Challenger who returns to a South American plateau to bring back a live specimen of a prehistoric animal and in the plateau itself, a “Land Time Forgot,” references to Doyle’s novel and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ science fantasy/pulp novel, The Land Time Forgot. Other, less direct influences include Victor Fleming’s adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, Martin Brest’s Going in Style, and Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (and Burden of Dreams, the contemporaneous documentary made during the filming of Fitzcarraldo).
But Up is far more than the sum of its influences. In the silent montage that follows an eight year-old Carl and his first meeting with Ellie, the love of his life, Docter and Peterson craft a mini-film that takes moviegoers through Carl’s life, from eight to 78. The montage sequence also reflects Up[‘s/i] preoccupation with relationships, especially lifelong ones, as adventures in and of themselves. The other major theme, of Carl reawakening to life’s possibilities, including mentoring Russell, is handled with a light hand that let’s Carl, and by extension the audience, learn an important “life lesson” without the expected sentimentality or sermonizing.Without quality animation, story, themes, and characters would be, if not exactly meaningless, then worth a lot less. Here as in their previous nine films (even including "Cars"), Pixar’s attention to detail is evident in everything from the patches on Russell’s Wilderness Explorer uniform to the knick-knacks and mementos in Carl’s home, to the alien world Carl and Russell encounter in Venezuela. Docter, Peterson, and several other animators visited Angel Falls, Venezuela, the real-world equivalent of Paradise Falls in the film to gather reference material, including the "tepuis", the singularly odd-shaped stone structures found on the Angel Falls plateau. Combined with 3-D that emphasizes depth over projection, "Up" is yet another triumph for Pixar, one that Pixar’s competitors will be, once again, hard pressed to imitate, let alone exceed.
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originally posted: 05/29/09 18:24:29