Up (2009)

WFTB Score: 16/20

The plot: Faced with the prospect of an isolated life in a retirement home, widower Carl Fredricksen decides to undertake the impossible expedition he and his wife Ellie never got round to, and sets off for South America – in his house. He unwittingly brings young explorer Russell along for the ride, and together they make a host of incredible, and occasionally perilous, discoveries.

Ever since he was young, Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) harboured a dream to emulate the adventures of his hero Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) by exploring South America. Childhood sweetheart Ellie shared her husband’s dreams, but – life being what it is – they never quite got round to visiting Paradise Falls before Ellie passed away. Sad and befuddled by modern life, Carl (now approaching eighty) is about to embark on an inevitable, slow decline in a rest home whilst his house is demolished in the name of business progress; however, the life-long balloon seller decides he’s going to have his adventure after all, ties a bunch of balloons to his house and literally ups sticks, aiming for a new continent. The only snag is, zealous Scout Russell (Jordan Nagai) was attached to the house when it lifted off, and the disparate duo are forced to rub along together as they guide the house towards its wondrous destination. On the way, they encounter an exotic bird which Russell inappropriately names Kevin, a highly distractible talking Dog called Dug (Bob Peterson) and, in Dug’s master, a nasty surprise who’s determined to get his hands on Kevin.

Prior to watching Up, most of what I knew about the film revolved around the supposed excellence of its opening ten minutes: having seen it, I understand why. The introduction lays out Carl and Ellie’s life before us, encompassing their closeness, their frustrations, the pain of their childlessness, and Ellie’s departure, without having to resort to anything so vulgar as the spoken word. This beautiful, touching sequence reminds us what cinema is all about, the power the moving image has to tell a story with economy and simplicity. It’s amazing but irrelevant that the images are made in a computer, and that there’s so many teraflops of processing power going into the shading, textures or whatever; the important thing is that the technology operates entirely in the service of the storytelling. The introduction also sets up the sadness in Carl’s life, the assumption that Ellie’s life was incomplete because they never got to travel; of course, the assumption is…well, you can watch it and find out for yourselves.

The downside of Up’s reputation is the possibility that the remainder of the film doesn’t match up to its beginning. I’m happy to report that this isn’t the case at all. Up is a beautiful-looking film throughout, especially when you’re treated to wide shots of the house and the thousands of balloons keeping it aloft; and although the stylised forms of Carl and Russell take a little bit of getting used to, you quickly do and they provide plenty of entertainment in terms of both action and comedy (in the case of the geriatric fight scene, both at the same time), the dynamic between the two touching but not schmaltzy. Dug – ‘Squirrel!’* – is absolutely adorable, and he’s balanced by a (semi-)menacing foe in Doberman Alpha (voiced by Peterson again). Kevin is also great fun, and the bird’s colourful appearance (and subsequent adventures) helps to make Up’s journey palatable for all ages, an important consideration since the subtleties of the opening might fly over the head of younger viewers.

So do I have cause to prick any of Up’s balloons? Only one or two. While I applaud the stunning look of the film, its story contains strong echoes of other tales, including Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach and The Wizard of Oz; the madcap imagination of Terry Gilliam gets in there somewhere, too. Secondly, while it seems a bizarre thing to pick on in a film where a house flies thousands of miles and the dogs all talk, I didn’t particularly enjoy the silliness of the dogs flying fighter planes, probably because Wallace and (more specifically) Gromit already covered that territory cleverly in The Curse of the Were-rabbit. That said, if you’re going to lean on other movies, you may as well lean on decent ones.

It’s paradoxical, perhaps, but true that it’s easier to write copiously about rotten films than great ones, but in short all I need to say about Up is that it’s a great film. In recent years, not everything Pixar has touched has been brilliant: Cars, for example, is merely quite good, and Brave was disappointingly routine. However, when they are up they are really, really up, and Up finds them flying high.

NOTES: I’m hugely tempted to start saying ‘Squirrel!’ in the middle of most of my spoken sentences. I guess it would be cute if I were seven. At the age of…not quite seven, it might seem a little nuts.

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