When people say something perfunctory like “Pixar’s done it again!”, it makes it sound like a magic trick. Like no one will ever understand how this one studio turns out one instant piece of polished pop perfection after another. That is, of course, nonsense. It’s not a magic trick at all.
Pixar makes great movies because they have a great story process, staffed with smart, creative people, and that process encourages invention and experimentation to such a degree that they’re not afraid to tear a film down when it’s not working, even if they’re already in production. The process between the various artists and writers and directors is remarkable… but it’s almost to be expected at this point. This is what happens when a creative company genuinely values creativity.
I’m not going to run through their filmography or tie myself in knots trying to rank this against their other iflms. Why bother? Over time, I return to all of the movies at some point. Some more than others, sure, but it’s sort of just based on my mood. Having said that, my first reaction to a single viewing of “Up” (I’m going back tonight with Toshi and my wife) is that it may be the most original of their movies. And by that, I just mean that it’s harder to pin down than most. It’s not a “bug” movie or a “toy” movie or a “fish” movie or a “superhero” movie or “monsters” or “cars” or “rats.” It defies that sort of categorization. It’s an adventure story, but it’s also a character-driven journey about a man determined to do whatever he has to do to honor the memory of his beloved dead wife. It doesn’t have the most conventional structure, either. It’s fantastic in some ways, but almost intimate in scope at times. It’s a film of contradictions and left turns, a series of self-contained movements that add up to something that ultimately satisfies both as pure entertainment and as emotional powerhouse.
And it’s in 3D!
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I kid. Sort of. I do think the 3D deserves special mention here, and that the 3D presentation of “Up” is the one you should see. So much of this film takes place… well… up… meaning off the ground or in the sky or on mountain tops… that my fairly pronounced fear of heights kicked in. Not on an intellectual level, either, like “Oh, these are very well-rendered heights, and that is what I am afraid of.” Nope. More like a physiological animal panic automatic “OH GOD I’M FALLING!” level. It’s a pretty rare theatrical experience that gives me the flop sweats by design. I think the last one may have been “Irreversible.” The point is that the 3D isn’t a gimmick here at all… it’s actually something that creates a different sense of peril and immersion, and I think it makes the action towards the end of the film in particular spirited and involving.
The story starts simply, with a newsreel prologue that leads into the first meeting of two children, Carl and Ellie. That plays out as a charming extended sequence, which gives way to a rapid fire representation of the rest of their lives together, from little kids to septugenarians in what seems like less than ten minutes. It packs more of a punch than some feature films. Most feature films, I’d say. And this little mini-movie sets the stakes for Carl (Ed Asner) clearly, so that we’re with him on every single step of this insane adventure of his. That opening sets the bar verrrrrrrry high for character and storytelling…
… and the rest of the film more than lives up to it. Once Carl leaves the ground with Wilderness Explorer Russell (Jordan Nagai) in tow, everything begins to unfold in the strangest ways. Talking dogs, fictional birds, long-lost explorers, and lots of balloons all add up to something I can honestly say I’ve never seen before. It’s intoxicating. There are some stretches that are very emotional, even upsetting, but it’s worth it for the payoffs at the end.
And artistically, I don’t want to say that Pixar makes progress from film to film, but it’s like they just keep pushing their own range, just to see what new environment or texture or subtle bit of acting they can accomplish. “Up” is gorgeous, both in design and execution, and the performance work by all the major characters, both vocally and visually, is specific and manages to be hilarious and honest in equal measure. The definition of what exactly constitutes “performance” becomes greyest when you’re dealing with actors who give you as much as Ed Asner does and animators as gifted and observant as the Pixar crew. This is where animation does sort of come close to being magic, when somehow a simple vocal track combined with something completely artificial somehow takes on the genuine appearance of life. And maybe that’s the real key to why I love the films of Pixar so much. They don’t just make good films with good stories… they create characters who I am pleased to spend time with, characters I want to revisit already. They create them so well, so richly, that the films have a pull above and beyond what you’d expect. You’re not going back for any one particular thing… you’re going back because the entire experience is a pleasure, and the people are real… and worth revisiting. Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, co-directors on the film, deserve huge kudos for the accessible eccentricity of their plot and the ample empathy in their approach to character. And Michael Giacchino’s work here cannot be overpraised. It’s impossible. If I started a daily column called, “Michael Giacchino’s score for ‘Up’ is so good it deserves to be announced daily,” it would still not be enough. I think he’s the best working film composer right now, at least of traditional movie scores. And this is, I think, the best thing he’s written since “The Incredibles,” which was, of course, the best James Bond score never written.
I have a feeling “Up” is going to be a film with passionate defenders. I think it’s the sort of film people get passionate about, personal and odd. But I doubt it will really need those defenders, since I expect it to play for audiences of pretty much any age, and in a very real way, leaving them elated next weekend.
“Up” opens nationwide on May 29.
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