I saw the most wonderful movie last night. You’ve probably seen it already, but if you haven’t, don’t delay; it just appeared on DVD. It’s called UP, and it’s the latest picture from the miraculous Pixar Animation Studios. We missed it in theaters – this has been a crazy year for us – but the Film Society of Lincoln Center held a screening and invited the director, Pete Docter, to talk about it afterward, so I got a rare second chance.
I suppose we failed to get excited because we knew it was about an old man who uses a googol of helium-filled balloons to turn his little house into a dirigible. But holy cow, does that thumbnail fail to prepare you for what you actually get to see.
The film first introduces a wide-eyed young boy who idolizes a famous adventurer, later discredited because of suspicion that his fantastic artifacts retrieved from South America’s Paradise Falls are phony. He meets a spunky little girl who’s also mad for adventuring, and she turns out to be his soulmate. In a bravura four minutes of dialogue-free film, using nothing but music, we watch as they enter into a very happy marriage – marred only by their inability to have children — and grow old together. Then the woman passes away after a full life, leaving her devoted, now-78-year-old husband alone and bitter. This overwhelmingly moving montage has transformed the lad into the old man we’d heard about. My friend John Kelly, who saw UP for the second time last night, notes that if they’d gone to black and rolled credits after this sequence, you’d have a contender for, and probably winner of, the Best Short Film Oscar. But the flick has barely gotten started.
Carl Fredricksen – for this is who we’ve been watching – has made his living selling balloons from a cart at his and wife Ellie’s dream house. They always planned to travel to Paradise Falls like their hero, but one thing or another kept interfering, eating away at their savings. Now the little house is the only tract preventing a big commercial construction project. When Carl is booted on a technicality, the guys from the retirement home come to pick him up. But he has a surprise for them: the movie’s second vaulting, gulp-making sequence. He deploys an immense cloud of balloons and his house rises over the city, to Michael Giacchino’s majestic score.
Carl, a square-headed curmudgeon who looks like Spencer Tracy and sounds like Ed Asner, is headed to Paradise Falls, to take the house there in Ellie’s memory; her last request was that he start another adventure. He’s jerry-rigged a guidance system and thought of everything, almost. Because Russell, a hyperactive, pear-shaped 8-year-old Wilderness Explorer, was caught on the front porch during ascent. He’s working on the final badge that will complete his collection: Assisting The Elderly, and he’s fixated on Carl. Now we have a buddy movie – but it’ll take some time.
I’m not spoiling anything by telling you they do reach Paradise Falls, because it happens almost immediately. But here again, the film opens up to accept a wild supporting cast. There’s a lovable dog whose master has invented a collar that allows him to talk, only not like Rex Harrison, but able to verbalize the thoughts you’d imagine your own dog might actually have. In fact, there’s a whole pack of talkative hounds. There’s an exotic bird. A great villain. And a good hour of rollicking comedy that ranges from very clever dialogue to pure slapstick.
UP is both literally and figuratively about escaping the bonds that tie us down and hold us back, and both of the leads have internalized issues in this regard. It’s full of heart as well as humor, in the now-typical Pixar manner. And it earns my highest level of praise: when it was over, I wanted to see it again, right away.
Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum interviewed Docter (who also directed the lovely MONSTERS, INC. for Pixar), and we got a peek into the process. UP was a full three and a half years in development. When you take that kind of care, smart and funny people can worry every aspect of a concept: dogs that talk, houses that fly. There isn’t a spare syllable in the screenplay. There can’t be – because while Pixar pictures may be computer-generated, they’re still produced by hand; a Pixar animator can finish only about four seconds of screen time per day. The changing and fixing was done long before the animator sat down, through storyboards and animatics. Pixar’s films are not written down to children, nor do the creators go in for topical references that would tend to date: as Docter said, “There are no Twitter jokes here.” (There is one GPS gag, though: a literal throwaway line.) That gives them the same timeless quality possessed by the Disney cel-animation classics.
UP is Pixar’s first 3-D film; Schwarzbaum mentioned that when she saw it open the Cannes Film Festival, it was amusing to behold all those Riviera darlings wearing their 3-D glasses. Docter said the filmmakers decided early on to avoid the cheesy “reaching-out” effects that pull you out of the story. So the 3-D team operated on this conceit: the screen is a window, a pane, but nothing can fly out of it toward the audience; any depth perception always issues back from the pane. Our screening was in 2-D, and I only caught one or two shots that were clearly meant for depth. To Docter, that’s a good job.
WALL-E was my favorite Pixar movie before this, and maybe it still is. I loved the tour de force of non-verbal comedy and pathos and the science-fictional setting. But this one may actually be richer, and it’s definitely more of a piece, where WALL-E is essentially a double feature. Whatever, please don’t make my mistake and let this one slip by. With ten flicks on the list this year (bad idea!), this is certain to be the second animated film ever to receive a Best Picture nomination.