NYCC: The First 45 Minutes of Pixar’s Up

Last night at the New York Comic-Con, the IGN Theater was cleared for a special screening of the first 45 minutes of Pixar’s new film, Up. Only the first 300 people in line (plus a few dozen people approved by the studio) were allowed access to the footage. Director Pete Docter and producer Jonas Rivera took to the stage beforehand to let us know that the footage we were about to see was slightly incomplete, with music still yet to be done, sound effects yet to be recorded, and some CGI still missing [For the record, they could have fooled me: The footage we saw looked great and didn't have any placeholder storyboards or animatics. The music was also pretty good]. The two will be wrapping up production of the film in the next 6 weeks. Hit the jump for spoiler-free video reactions, followed by a detailed description of the first 45 minutes of Up.

After the screening, I rounded up a couple of my colleagues, Terri Schwartz and Kellen Rice from Blast Magazine, to chat about what we had seen. Here are our SPOILER-FREE reactions to the first 45 minutes of Up:
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What follows is a detailed description and reactions to the footage. MASSIVE, DETAILED, JUICY SPOILERS are ahead so do not read unless you want to know exactly what happens in the first 45 minutes of Up.

The movie opens with newsreel footage being played in a theater. A boy in the audience, Carl, is watching the footage with wide-eyed wonder as the footage tells us about about Charles Muntz, an adventuring pilot who director Docter has previously likened to Charles Lindbergh and Howard Hughes. Muntz journeyed to a place called Paradise Falls in South America using his aircraft, The Spirit of Adventure. He brought back the skeleton of a monster but when scientists examined it, they concluded that he had fabricated the creature (and potentially his successful trip to Paradise Falls). Incensed, Muntz declared that he would capture the beast alive and bring it back to prove his credibility.

The newsreel footage ends and the boy leaves the theater elated, biking with his flight goggles on and his balloon which is prominently labeled “The Spirit of Adventure.” On the way home, he hears noises from a girl emanating from a house nearby. He goes inside to see that the girl, Ellie, has rigged up several rooms of the house to appear like The Spirit of Adventure, and is playfully imagining her own journey. Ellie personifies gregariousness and energy, while Carl seems almost painfully shy. Ellie welcomes Carl into her “club,” but a mishap with Carl’s balloon sends him to the hospital. Later, visiting Carl in his home while he’s bedridden, Ellie shows him her personal secret, “My Adventure Book,” a handmake book with a huge blank section titled “Things I’m Going To Do.” More than anything, Ellie wants to visit Paradise Falls one day. Ellie leaves, having talked Carl’s ear off, saying “You know, you don’t talk very much. I like you.”

The two fall in love and get married. What follows is an utterly masterful montage which depicts the entire duration of Carl and Elli’s marriage. Old-timey music plays in the background as we see silent scenes of Carl and Ellie redecorating their house, painting their mailbox, pointing out shapes in clouds while lying in a field. We find out that Carl sells balloons while Ellie (I think) works at the zoo. Eventually, it’s revealed that they want to have kids but a shot of a doctor’s office reveals that Ellie is infertile (somewhat mature for a Pixar film, but it’s something the kids probably won’t understand anyway). The two approach the end of their lives and one day, Carl sees Elli’s “My Adventure Book” and decides that it’s finally time for them to go to Paradise Falls. He buys her a ticket and takes it with him on a picnic at the top of a hill, but Ellie stumbles before she can gets there. We later see Ellie in a hospital, in dire straits, and soon afterwards, she dies. The movie fades to black.

It was likely the combination of amazing direction on Pete Docter’s part, extreme tiredness after covering film news all day and recent events in my personal life, but this montage left me a weepy mess. Within a span of 5-10 minutes, we are witness to the blooming of love, the heartbreak of death, and most significantly, the tragedy of missed opportunity. The lack of dialogue and the power of the images reminded me (and several others watching) of the first half hour of Wall-E. Make no mistake: The first segment of this film is Pixar at its finest.

Carl wakes up one morning and we see a few of his morning rituals. But as he sits out on his front porch, the camera pulls back to reveal that there is construction work going on all around him, his house the remaining bastion of idyllic suburbia in a backdrop of steel girders and bulldozers. We find out that some corporation is desperately trying to get Carl to sell his home, as it’s clearly in the way of them building some mall or something. Carl (who finally begins to talk, voiced wonderfully by Ed Asner) declares that he’ll never sell it.

Someone knocks at Carl’s door. It’s a 9-year old boy, Russell, who is trying to become a “senior wilderness explorer,” the movie’s equivalent of a boy scout. In order to fulfill his badge for helping the elderly, Russell must assist Carl with some task. Any task. Carl sends Russell to go find a (probably fictional) snipe that’s been bothering him.

A construction vehicle almost destroys Carl’s mailbox (the one he and Ellie painted their names on). A construction worker tries to right the box, but Carl is so frustrated that he hits the worker over the head with his cane, drawing blood. Carl is taken to court and declared a public threat. The police inform him that the nursing home, Shady Oaks, will be at his house the next day to pick him up.

The next morning, two orderlies drive up in a Shady Oaks vehicle to collect Carl. Dozens of cans of helium are strewn about the lawn, which the orderlies mistake as poor lawn maintenance on Carl’s part. Carl hands them a suitcase and tells him he’ll be right with them. Then, he unleashes the balloons. As cool as this sequence looked in the trailers, it’s even more breathtaking on a big screen. Balloons shoot out of Carl’s chimney towards the sky, and the entire house is slowly ripped off its foundation. The balloon physics are amazing and the colors, my god, the colors. They are beautiful.

The house floats away, as Carl is at long last going to begin his journey to Paradise Falls. Brief shots of city onlookers show their surprise. Although his wife has passed away, he still speaks to the house as though she were there. This will be his way of fulfilling her dream. Scenes of the house flying through the air are beautiful, nearly photorealistic. Throughout, Giacchino’s beautiful Up theme (I think?) plays in the background. This whole sequence is peaceful, yet exhilarating.

After the house has been floating for awhile (Carl uses a complex system of “sails” sticking out the windows to steer it), Carl discovers that Russell has been stowing away on the front porch (he was looking for the snipe). The house floats into a thunderstorm and Ellie’s possessions begin falling off shelves. Carl desperately tries to catch them before they break. The thunderstorm rages and the screen fades to black. Carl awakes later and Russell informs Carl that he’s used their GPS to get them to Paradise Falls. Dubious, Carl cuts off a few balloons to “land” the house and tells Russell to take a bus home. However, the house is soon avoiding huge rock strucutre in the midst of fog during its descent to the ground. Carl and Russell are ejected from the house onto the ground, but in a thrilling sequence Carl manages to grab the garden hose that’s attached to the house and stop the house from floating away, just as he is dragged to the edge of a huge cliff. Across a gaping chasm, with verdant vegetation below, Carl sees his prize: Paradise falls, just a few miles away.

Carl and Russell try to get back to the house but neither of them can climb up the house. This is where the film begins to get a bit goofy, as Carl and Russell decide to drag the house by the hose around the chasm to get to his destination. Eventually, the two end up in jungle-style terrain, and Russell needs to go to the bathroom. After he’s done his business, he discovers a huge bird that he believes to be a snipe. The bird is enormous, a couple stories tall, and is animated in a style that is alternately hilarious and terrifying. Russell wants to keep the bird, but Carl is unenthusiastic about the idea.

That’s where the talking dogs come in.

Shortly after they discover the bird, Russell and Carl happen upon a dog with a collar around it that reads its thoughts and allows it to speak (through a speaker). The dog wants to make the bird “its prisoner,” which we think is a joke but is apparently slightly more serious than that. Cut to a separate pack of dogs that look much more menacing and who can also “talk.” One of the dogs’ collars is broken (the alpha male who looked the meanest), causing it to speak in an incredibly high-pitched voice. During the screening, this caused peals of laughter in the audience, so it was difficult to understand exactly what was being said. All I could tell was that the pack of dogs was trying to get back to the first dog (the dogs could communicate via intercom on their collars) and that the first dog was proud to have the bird as its prisoner so it could bring it back to its master. I’m only speculating here, but I imagine that the dogs belong to Charles Muntz (his dogs were introduced in the opening newsreel footage) and that the bird is the beast of Paradise Falls that Muntz wants to bring back to America to prove the veracity of his adventures. How Muntz and his dogs have lived this long is information I’m not yet privy to.

**

So, how to feel about this footage? First of all, it’s obvious to me that all the advertising for the film has only shown material from (at most) the first third of this film. What I thought was going to be some adventure through the sky looks like it will have a much more substantial adventure portion through the jungles of South America that happens to require the adventurers to drag a floating house by hose behind them. I’ve also heard that Christopher Plummer’s Muntz character will play a significant role. In other words, despite having seen more of this movie than most other people, I’m struck most by how much of the movie I haven’t yet seen.

I will say that the talking dogs was a bit whacky and sci-fi for me. The dogs interrupt their own trains of thought to scream “SQUIRREL!” (because dogs notice squirrels frequently!). The alpha dog speaks in an Alvin & the Chipmunks style voice. These felt like obvious, slapstick gags more often reserved for the background of Pixar films (e.g. the “MINE” seagulls in Finding Nemo) rather than traits of what I assume may be some of the film’s main characters (i.e. the dogs). But maybe they won’t be featured prominently, or maybe the alpha dog won’t talk in a chipmunk voice for the whole movie. Again, i just haven’t seen enough footage to make a judgment. All i know is that in Pixar we trust, and there’s certainly nothing on display here that would persuade me to deviate from that mantra.

Everything else in the film was pitch perfect. The animation is gorgeous (shocking!). Ed Asner is wonderful as the crotchety old man, Carl, and Russell (Jordan Nagai) is a great foil for him that manages to somehow stay not annoying. Honestly, the film is worth watching for the first 10 minutes alone. Can the rest of the movie also deliver that quality of storytelling? We’ll see come May, but I’m very much looking forward to finding out.

You can reach David Chen at davechensemail(at)gmail.com. You can also follow him on Tumblr or on Twitter.

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