Sunday, September 13, 2009

Review - Up

Every year, the great minds at Pixar produce a new film for our enjoyment, and it has become customary for each of those features to be preceded by an animated short. Before their latest film Up begins, we are treated to Peter Sohn's Partly Cloudy, an amusing little skit about a stork whose deliveries are slightly less adorable than the babies, puppies and kittens his colleagues carry down to awaiting parents. It's a clever, terrifically animated piece of work, much as we would expect, but I was surprised to find, within Up's opening moments, a self-contained slice of filmmaking that is almost a perfect short in its own right. We are introduced to Carl Fredricksen as an adventure-hungry child, who finds his perfect mate in Ellie, an energetic scamp similarly in thrall to the legendary explorer Charles Muntz. Jump ahead a few years, and the pair are getting married, before a wordless montage whisks us through their subsequent decades together – their joys and difficulties, their pain when they discover they cannot have children, the dreams that go unfulfilled, and the encroaching old age and illness which eventually claims Ellie's life, leaving her devoted husband alone and bereft.

It is, quite simply, an astounding filmmaking achievement; a sequence that manages to encapsulate the full measure of two lives bound by a deep and abiding love, without uttering a single word. That it deals with ageing and death as an inevitable fact of life, not to mention the manner in which it handles their inability to conceive, makes this a remarkable and distinctive passage in the Pixar canon. How many animated family films have dealt with themes such as this in such a subtle, direct and mature fashion? And how many films have managed to reduce you to tears within the opening ten minutes, with the death of a character who has barely spoken? Pixar have long been lauded for their technological advancements – mastering hair, water, cloth etc. – but this emotional advancement is just as impressive as any of the CGI hurdles they have negotiated.

In fact, this opening section is so perfectly pitched, I began to fear that Up had peaked too early, setting itself a standard that the subsequent 80 minutes would struggle to maintain. Fortunately, the film quickly allays those fears, switching tones and kicking off a fast, gag-laden plot that hits the ground running and doesn't look back. Carl (voiced by a suitably grouchy Ed Asner), still trying to come to terms with his wife's passing, finds himself under increasing pressure to sell his house – which is holding up building development – and move into a retirement village. He reacts in the way any rational 78 year-old would – he attaches thousands of helium balloons to the roof of his house and lifts off, with the intention of steering his flying home towards Paradise Falls, a location in South America that Ellie had always dreamed of visiting, but never had the chance.

I went into Up knowing little about the movie beyond the basic premise, and it would be a shame to spoil its surprises here, as the experience of discovering them afresh is one of the movie's pleasures. Suffice to say, the screenplay is a marvel of invention, perhaps Pixar's most outlandishly plotted film yet, but even as it soars to fanciful heights, the film is grounded by a consistent emotional backbone. Carl's unstinting devotion to his deceased wife, determined as he is to fulfil this one ambition in her name, is touchingly developed, and culminates in a beautiful sequence in which he takes another look at the adventure book she compiled as a child. Likewise, the relationship between Carl and Russell (Jordan Nagai), the portly boy scout who inadvertently joins his adventure, is a handled with a sensitivity and humour that transcends its clich├ęd origins. Visually too, the pair are a perfect match – Carl is rectangular, Russell almost as round as one of Carl's balloons – and between them they create a memorable odd-couple partnership.

Of course, Up is stunning to look at. Carl's initial lift-off is wonderful, the multicoloured balloons dancing in the light as he soars above the city, and the South America they finally arrive in is vivid and atmospheric. This is the first Pixar feature to be released in 3D, although the extra dimension adds little of note to the experience, and at times it felt like a distraction (not helped by the rather clunky and spectacles-unfriendly 3D glasses we were required to wear). Thankfully, I was often too entranced by the picture to allow such minor quibbles to get in the way, and the climactic aerial pursuit between Carl, Russell and the villain of the piece Muntz (Christopher Plummer) is spectacular and brilliantly conceived by any measure. It reminded me of the gravity-defying multiple door climax to Monsters Inc., also directed by Docter, who has successfully married thrilling set-pieces, comedy and genuine heart in his two Pixar efforts to date, both of which can be classed among the studio's best. Up is one of the Pixar's funniest films, and it is a film that moved me to tears on three separate occasions; not bad for a family film that clocks in at just over 90 minutes. This is one of the best films of the year, a picture made by artists working at the peak of their game, and a picture driven by a ceaseless spirit of adventure.