From outdated action figures to disaffected farming ants to monsters who specialize in scaring little kids to a finder of lost fish to overweight retired superheroes to living NASCARs to rats in the kitchen to robotic garbage men, somehow Pixar always makes their films worth watching. In 2009 we get Up, the story of a crotchety old man who attaches a circus-load of Balloons to his house and flies to South America. Okay, interesting choice. Sounds like you've got enough there to fill up one of your short-films, there, buddies, how are you going to make this one work? Well, once again... it's the story!
After the high-quality and unconventional short Partly Cloudy (by director Peter Sohn) we're brought into the world of our loveable old curmudgeon, not in his present form, but as he was decades ago when he was a wide-eyed dreaming child, filled with wonder and an imaginitive wish for adventure. Little Carl Fredricksen (played in his youth by Jeremy Leary) seems to be completely unique in his make-believe-centric interests until he meets a young girl named Ellie (Elie Docter) who is, shall we say, just perfect for Carl. And the friendship lasts as we see in this excellent introduction that barely has as much dialogue as the first half of Wall*E!
In these few, yet full, minutes we see just what makes Pixar who they are and just how talented writer/ directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson (working from a story they wrote with Thomas McCarthy) truly are. It's not often that a movie can make me cry, man. I mean, you're more likely to get oil from a dry well than a cinematic tear out of my eye! How rare is it for a film to make me cry in the first ten minutes? Well, I'm thinking Up is the first flick that's ever done that.
As we move into the present we see Carl Fredricksen, who is now an old man, speaking with the voice of Edward Asner. He's still in the same house he and Ellie made a home, but he's all alone. The neighborhood hasn't gone to pot, however, in fact, it's BOOMING. Booming enough that their little house is now dwarfed by skyscrapers all around it. Everybody's telling him to sell, from the big bad business men to the really nice guys like good old "Construction Foreman Tom" (John Ratzenberger). Wow! John Ratzenberger in a Pixar flick AT LAST! What a great idea. Why isn't he in every one of their films? What a perfect fit!
Rather than sell the place, Carl (a retired Balloon seller with no kids or other ties) has a bright idea for an alternative that involves filling up every Balloon he can get his hands on and flying his entire house thousands of miles away to help fulfill the dream he and Ellie had since they were kids. Yep, it was their dream to follow in the footsteps of their childhood hero, adventurer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), dirigible pilot, inventor, explorer and all-around amazing guy who disappeared years ago while working to clear his name in a zoological scandal. Yeah, but who hasn't had a few zoological scandals in their lives? I, for one, am still under investigation for trying to genetically engineer a super-intelligent Hamster with Dragon Claws. There's just one thing that Carl Fredricksen has on his flying house journey that Mr. Muntz didn't have in his Zeppelin... An accidental tourist in the form of a young Wilderness Explorer named Russell (Jordan Nagai)!
Yep, that's what Carl gets for sending the kid (who only wanted a "Helping the Elderly" merrit badge) on a snipe hunt. This snipe hunt takes Russell all the way down to "The Lost World" where he's sure to find lots of things... but hardly any snipes. No John Ratzenberger either.
Speaking of "The Lost World", that's exactly where they go, by the way. Fans of 1925's The Lost World will recognize the geography of their destination as right out of that earlier film. The recreation, like all of the animation, is both clever and beautiful to witness. Carl and Russell aren't going to find any dinosaurs there, however. What they might find instead are colorful giant birds named Kevin and a whole gang of talking dogs like Dug (Bob Peterson again), Alpha (Bob Peterson again, again), Beta (Delroy Lindo) and Gamma (Jerome Ranft). Of course, there may actually be a bigger surprise waiting for them in the jungle as well. What that is, I'm not saying.
I will say that the talking dogs and that animated bird are hilarious, as are most of the characters in the film! The film's creators seem to really get dog behavior and seem to have a great time of articulating funny dog mannerisms into human speech. If you're a dog lover, you need to see this film. Nagai is excellent as the determined and dutiful, yet innocent and funny Russell. In spite of his CGI-Cartoonishness, there's a feeling of a really real kid in there. Ed Asner is likewise great as our main character. It's no surprise that he succeeds so well at this part, seeing as how he's had so much practice playing this kind of character, but the depth that he brings to Carl humanizes the guy and really endears him to the audience. Of course, that opening sequence with Carl and Ellie does a very fine job of that as well. Not everyone will want to go out to see some old grouch animated on the big screen, but remember, this is Pixar and Carl is hilarious and well-rounded as a really good guy. Sometimes he's very funny, sometimes his story is sad.
And that brings us to another level in Up. Make no mistake, this is a very positive and (no pun intended) Uplifting film, but the joyful parts of this film are contrasted with some dark, scary and bleak moments. There are good reasons that this film is the first Pixar flick since The Incredibles to be Rated PG! There are parts that can make the audience weep (yeah, including me, yeah, in the first ten minutes) while there are some other scary moments, especially for the littler kids in the audience. Further, we are dealing with a high-flying story where several exciting sequences take place way up in the wild, blue yonder where any near miss can mean certain death. With the awe-inspiring animation of Pixar and the rich character development and care put into each star's makeup, this can be jarring even for an adult. Pixar is the best in the business because they really know how to sweep you away. If the screenplay isn't great, the story won't be. The animation is there, but the story is what makes this one work.
And it's the story that is ultimately the most rewarding. Throughought the thrills and chills and derring-do, the real core of this picture are the characters you grow to care about and the real hope we all have that they're going to come out ahead. So, yes, the story of a loveable old curmudgeon who ties brontosaurus-loads of Balloons to his house and flies South for the December of his life is not only good, but great and fully worth that Five Stars out of Five! If you're interested in a rich story with emotion, adventure and more laughs than you can shake a garden hose at, trust me, see Up! You'll be glad you did! Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a season of even scarier things to prepare for, so I'll see you in the next... SQUIRREL!
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