Movie Review: Up – The Greatest Adventure

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[This review contains plot details revealed in the first 10 minutes of Pixar's Up]

Pixar’s movies have always depicted fantastical worlds spun out of reams of boundless creativity. A rat who dreamed of becoming a chef, and who lived out that dream through controlling a guy by pulling on his hair. An epic battle between ants and grasshoppers. A city full of monsters, powered by the screams of children. A family of superheroes that try to defeat a spurned ex-devotee.

It’s in the context of these wondrous films that Up emerges as Pixar’s entry for summer 2009. Directed by Pete Docter (Monsters Inc.), Up is Pixar’s most ambitious effort yet. Pixar films have always expertly been able to imbue fantasy with real-world emotions, but with Up, Docter tries to create a world that is both distinctively ours, yet also a universe of its own. How well does he succeed?

Up tells the story of Carl Fredrickson (Ed Asner), a retired balloon seller whose wife has recently passed away. Carl’s biggest regret is that he never took his wife, Ellie, to visit her dream destination of Paradise Falls in South America while she was still alive. Determined to rectify this mistake, Carl fills his house full of helium balloons and the next morning, he deploys them out of his chimney, ripping his house off its foundation and sending it hurtling southwards. On the way to his destination, he finds that Russell (Jordan Nagai), a local Wilderness Explorer (this movie’s version of Boy Scouts) has stowed away on board, in an attempt to help Carl and win his “Assisting the Elderly” badge. Together, the two form an unlikely friendship as Carl tries to fulfill his quest.

Let it first be said that Up is thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end. There was nary a moment that didn’t engage, thrill, or pull (and occasionally yank) on my heartstrings. The first ten minutes of the film, which contain an utterly masterful montage depicting a romance from inception till death, is some of the best storytelling I’ve ever seen in my life, and evokes Wall-E’s opening 30 minutes of dialogue-free greatness. As Giacchino’s sweet, yet plaintive score played in the background during that segment, tears came to my eyes and I felt the audience around me also cave in to the weight of the emotion on display.

If there’s any flaw that can be attributed to Up, it’s that it tries to do too much. That opening 10 minutes is completely rooted in the real world, where real people deal with real joys and real problems (Ellie even discovers that she is infertile during this portion of the film). However, the film rapidly veers into a world full of flying houses, talking dogs, fantastical inventions, and exotic creatures. Tonally, it gets a bit muddy towards the end, as the film takes us from extreme pathos to manic whimsy in the blink of an eye. Yet how often can it be said that a film, especially an animated one, is too ambitious? A forgivable fault, to be sure.

I was also mildly disappointed that the film wastes an opportunity to be a serious meditation on the rigors of aging. Up begins by reflecting on how one copes with the loss of a loved one in old age, but for the rest of the film, Carl’s age is merely played for laughs; he’s spry, limber, even acrobatic when the film needs him to be, but his body also gives out just when a comedic beat is necessary. This reflects some of my broader problems with the film — namely, that Up sometimes doesn’t know what type of movie it wants to be.

Nonetheless, as is usual for Pixar, Up does so much right that it’s easy to forgive these slight missteps. The performances are amazing: Asner is perfect as the cantankerous and deeply conflicted Carl Frederickson, but it’s Jordan Nagai as Russell, the young Wilderness Explorer, that steals the show. Nagai, a first-time actor, successfully manages to straddle the line between annoying and adorable, and his performance as Russell gives what would otherwise be a more ponderous movie a much-needed jolt of life. While Russell’s dialogue makes his character arc predictable, it’s infused with so much sweetness that it will still melt your heart.

And of course, the visuals (my God, the visuals)!. Pixar continues to reveal themselves willing to push the envelope with their visual wizardry, and Up is no exception. The balloon physics are so detailed that they occasionally appear photorealistic, and the vistas visited in this film are unmatched in their breathtaking beauty. Yet one of the things I was most impressed with was the character design for Carl Frederickson. With his square jaw, stout body, and grizzled face, Carl is an imposing figure, but the combination of his nuanced emoting and Asner’s performance make him an unlikely lovable hero.

In the end, I love Up because despite its flaws, it is ridiculously effective. Up transported me to another world and allowed me to experience that thrill of adventure, previously felt only in films as great as Raiders of the Lost Ark. But perhaps the film’s biggest achievement is the eternal truth that it speaks to: That to experience true love and friendship is one of life’s greatest adventures.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10

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About the Author

David Chen currently lives and works in Seattle. You can follow him on Twitter at @davechensky. He can be reached at davechensemail(AT)gmail(DOT)com.

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