Up

12 05 2010

Pixar stand as the spiritual torchbearers of the Walt Disney’s philosophy: just as Disney pushed the limits of traditional 2D hand-drawn animation in the 1930s and 1940s, Pixar has done the same for 3D computer animation in the 1990s and early 2000s. But both Disney and Pixar were also determined to demonstrate that animation could be used to tell dramatic stories with genuine pathos and emotions. In this way, Pixar are the polar opposite of the 3D animation wing of Dreamworks, who seem more interested in letting story serve the gags than having it be the other way around.

2008’s WALL-E was an artistic triumph, playing more as a return to silent-era comedy-drama than as a tentpole family film, and while its follow-up, 2009’s Up, doesn’t attempt anything so daring stylistically, it does test the limits of what sort of stories are commercially viable in the modern family film market.

The premise of the story concerns Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner), an elderly widower determined to fulfil his late wife’s childhood dream of having a house on Paradise Falls, an exotic locale in South America. His solution? Fly the house there using helium-filled balloons.

There’s a melancholic undercurrent to all of this, much of it involving the themes of grief and unfulfilled dreams. But the larger theme is that of life being an adventure in itself, if our eyes are open to it. As a child, Carl lives in a world of endless possibilities, but as he gets older, life slowly chips away at his optimism until, finally, he finds himself as an embittered and scared senior citizen whose world has become unrecognisable. Losing his wife was the final straw.

Carl’s life story is told largely through a dialogue-free montage that is both tender and affecting, and is almost certainly the most powerful and impressive sequence that Pixar has produced, not due to its technical wizardry but due to its restraint. That it occurs in the first 10 minutes yet still manages to elicit tears from the spectator is testament to the abilities of the animators and writer-directors Pete Docter (director of Monsters Inc. (2001)) and Bob Peterson (who also voices the dogs Dug and Alpha).

But it’s not all dour reflections on the pain that comes with life. Along the way we meet Russell (Jordan Nagai), an over-eager and chatty “Wilderness Explorer”, and Kevin, a large, exotic bird with a taste for chocolate and walking sticks, as well as the aforementioned Dug, an excitable dog who talks using a computerised collar. If that weren’t enough, Christopher Plummer voices Charles Muntz, an explorer with an airship and a determination to clear his name after being accused of perpetuating a hoax.

Carl’s transformation into a surprisingly athletic hero during the climax may be a bit absurd, but for the most part Up plays by the rules: in a world where ordinary helium-filled balloons can move a house between continents and dogs can talk using electronic translators, an old man leaping and bounding in a time of need is forgivable.

This film is an instant classic. Its characters are engaging and its story is warm and heartfelt. And most importantly, its message is a reminder to us all that adventure really is out there, in the relationships we form and the moments we share together, just by living our lives.

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