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After ‘Up’ Must Come Down

It must be difficult to be the standard-bearer of animated films that transcend whatever prejudices are associated with mere cartoonery to create, quite simply, good cinema. But not merely good; although many Pixar films deserve to be ranked as classics, last year’s “Wall*E” planted the bright flag of excellence at the pinnacle of Pixar’s accomplishments. After that kind of success, the question of what next (?) ticks away like an unexploded time bomb. To get the inevitable comparison out of the way, “Up” is no “Wall*E.” Nor is it “The Incredibles” or “Finding Nemo.” For roughly 3/5ths of its running time, this carpe diem-buddy movie tracks closely to these giants. The remaining 2/5ths is as if co-directors Pete Docter and Bob Petersen were kidnapped by the Hollywood action movie machine and replaced with John McTiernan. Not to slight McTiernan, whose “Die Hard” remains tops in the action repertoire, but to wonder how a film can let inspired storytelling slip into a callous ballet of thoughtless violence. Granted, this same charge was leveled at “Wall*E” by the film’s critics, but there is a difference: the shift to action served to reinforce Wall*E and Eve’s romance and provide a further elaboration on human and environmental responsibility. That is not the case with “Up.”

A Serene Beginning

Until impulsiveness gets the better of it, “Up” offers the kind patience that savours the details of both art and characters. The story and camera linger long enough to appreciate the little things – the objects filling a room, the expression on face, a character’s body language, the elements of beautifully rendered environments – without sacrificing the film’s overall momentum. An opening montage that affectionately but not sappily encapsulates the life and love of Carl Fredericksen (Asner) and his perfect match in adventure, Ellie, is equal to some of those wonderful characters. By the time prologue gives way to the story proper, with the by-now iconic scene of Carl’s balloon-laden house taking to the air, “Up” has already managed to paint rich pictures of Carl and his young, accidental sidekick Russell (Nagai), an attention to character that extends to a memorable cast that also includes a colourful bird and a talking golden retriever. This is character as revealed by movement, facial expression, textured voices, detailed environments – and here, the restrained use of 3D adds an incredible richness to the visual experience.

But what happened with Charles Muntz (Plummer)? He is given the raw stuff of tragic heroism; Muntz is an unjustly disgraced explorer – the kind who, in his heyday, infused children like Carl and Ellie with the spirit of adventure – striving to clear his good name. In this lies a character whose personal struggles with his own spirit of adventure, both realized and frustrated, creates a natural dramatic counterpoint to Carl and Russell. Yet, marking the shift from adventurous character study to pedal-to-the-floor chasing, biting, and shooting, “Up” opts instead to cast Muntz as a rabid villain whose willingness to use deadly force against a child makes him unusually and inappropriately monstrous. In the greater context, the violence occurs with such insouciance – Muntz’s inevitable demise barely registers – that while the film’s third dimension is wonderful, its moral dimension is rather thin.  In a film that is otherwise uplifting in parts, hysterically funny in others, and often both simultaneously, the veer into action without conscience unravels the quiet, mildly sentimental – but mostly romantic – themes of love, loss, dreams, and living through heartbreaking loss. What goes up inevitably must come down; unfortunately, the down comes before the movie ends.

Entertainment Value: ** (out of two)
Technical Quality: * (out of two)

Up. Directed by Pete Docter. Written by Bob Peterson. With the voice talents of Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, and Christopher Plummer. Running time: 96 minutes. Rated PG (for some peril and action).

Frédérik invites you to discuss this movie and more at his blog, ink and ashes.

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