Movie Review: UP — Good

Well, let’s just say it right now – UP IS THE BEST PICTURE OF THE YEAR.  Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, just hand over that Oscar gold now.

78 year old Carl Frederickson has always had his head in the clouds.  A balloon salesman for his adult life, since a small boy, he and his beloved wife and best friend, Ellie, have shared a magical life but always hoping to share one great adventure together; an adventure they dreamed of long ago when they were 8 years old; one inspired by their hero, explorer Charles Muntz (“Adventure is out there!”) – a trip to Paradise Falls buried deep in the heart of the Lost World in the jungles of South America.  Sadly, time and luck were not on their side for try as they might, life always seemed to get in the way of their dream until Ellie was no more, leaving Carl lost and alone.   Facing the possibility of losing the house that he and Ellie shared, Carl has lost all hope, all energy, all desire for living.  But how can anyone stay so sad and depressed when an 8 year old Wilderness Explorer shows up at your door, reading from his little handbook about “Assisting the Elderly”  so he can earn his last merit badge and be promoted to Senior Wilderness Explorer?  This roly poly little boy named Russell from Tribe 54, Sweat Lodge 12, laden with every piece of camping gear you could hope to find at REI or Patagonia, is a ray of sunshine, hope, life – and an exasperation – to Carl, and, he too, has dreamt of his own wilderness adventure.   But Russell also stirs something within Carl, something long buried – Carl’s own boyish sense of adventure and his need to fulfill Ellie’s dream.  So what happens when all this childish inspiration hits Carl?  Well, you get “up” and move on – and in Carl’s case that means inflating thousands and thousands of balloons and attaching them to his house so he can soar into the skies on this one last adventure with memories of Ellie and their life together.   But what happens when 10,000 feet in the air, you get a knock on your door and open it only to find an 8 year old clinging to your porch for dear life?

The most unlikely of travel companions, Carl and Russell soar through the skies towards Paradise Falls, encountering some rather unusual travel conditions along the way, but nothing compared to what they face when they reach the wild jungles of South America.  Talking dogs?   A jewel-toned Ostrich-looking bird with the speed of the Roadrunner named Kevin?  A dirigible?  A pack of dogs that cook, clean and serve people, not to mention fly airplanes?  Charles Muntz?   Paradise Falls? WOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Described by supervising animator Scott Clark as “the most complicated character Pixar has ever created”, from his animated self to mandatory character traits of grouchiness, curmudgeonliness, kindness, softness, sentimentality and being extremely funny, there was only one man for voicing job here – Ed Asner.  And I must say, the only other person that I could envision voicing the role of Carl besides Asner would be the man whom the animation most closely resembles – Spencer Tracy (for whom W/D Pete Docter has great affection and admiration).   Just the look of Carl breeds a sense of comfort and familiarity.  As Carl, Asner is his at his curmudgeonly best.  He is a gifted voice actor who brings a full palette of emotion to the character.  A grumble or groan speaks volumes when it comes from him. And at the same time, his voice transforms as Carl’s heart melts and the character changes – even with the way he says “Russell” or “Kevin”.   No stranger to voice work and characterization, “It’s all acting to me.  I started out as a radio actor in high school.  I love doing voice work.  I love the exacting nature of it and the fact that your voice has to do all of the work.  There’s no body to dazzle them with, in my case, overwhelm with.  I just love the challenge. “    Here, as much as Carl is 78 years old on the outside, he is just as much an 8 year old boy on the inside.  He has lived life, had a full and happy life, has faced sorrow, but has never given up on the dreams he shared with Ellie as children.  With Asner, you can hear the wistfulness and sorrow in his voice as equally as you can hear the childish glee and joy when in the midst of adventure or the love and pride Carl comes to have for Russell.    You feel the joy in Carl’s heart; the excitement of the little boy emerging from within. You don’t need to even see the character; just listen to Asner’s voice.   According to Asner, “Carl had stopped putting energy into his life.  He sits and dreams and relishes the thought of joining Ellie either on the mountaintop by some miracle or by death.  It’s the same thing as a living death.  And along comes a change in circumstance which forces him to acknowledge this boy. . . to save the boy, to save the birds, save the dog, all of that.  He chooses the living as opposed to death.  I think it’s a wonderful example to follow for all people.”  Asner’s Carl will have every one of you longing for one more hug from or one more adventure with your Grandpa or Dad. 

Carl’s partner in crime, and thorn in his side, is a delightful little 8 year old Wilderness Explorer  named Russell who is brought to life by newcomer, Jordan Nagai. Russell is simply adorable. You want to pinch his cheeks and wrap your arms around him but it is Jordan’s voicing that drives that feeling.  The life he breathes into Russell! I could envision an actual little boy (dare I say one of my adventurous nephews, Eddie or Tommy) with determination, spunk and heart each time I not only saw Russell on screen but heard his voice. You connect with him. You want to love him. You want to help him earn his last badge. You want to help him be a great adventurer. You want to be on that adventure with him.  And Jordan’s is a story custom made for Disney as 7year old Jordan was only a tag-a-long with his older brother who was auditioning for the role. But after testing 450 kids, Jordan’s was the voice the filmmakers wanted.  As producer Jonas Rivera puts it, “he started talking about his judo class, and Bob Peterson and I just looked at each other and said, ‘There’s Russell’.”  For Docter, “one of the things that attracted us to Jordan was when he just talked about nothing. . .he would just meander and the way he spoke was so funny.”  It was this meandering charm that even influenced the design and story of Russell.

A real casting coup comes in the form of Christopher Plummer.  Probably best known for his performance as Captain Von Trapp in “The Sound of Music”, as the voice of Muntz, Plummer adds another feather to his cap with UP, which I predict will join “The Sound of Music” in the annals of great films.  Like Asner, Plummer got his start in radio  and loves doing animated films because “it’s great fun to play zany characters..”  A self-described “huge fan of Pixar stuff” is one of the reasons Plummer wanted to become involved in UP.  Plus “Muntz isn’t all that bad.  He’s got a great personality.”  And with Plummer’s voicing, he does.  

John Ratzenberger makes it 10 for 10 with Pixar as he joins the cast this go round as Construction Foreman Tom.  With his own inimitable style, Ratzenberger is a welcome addition to any project and as Foreman Tom is pivotal to the development of Carl and the storyline.  Despite only a few minutes of screen time, Ratzenberger brings excitement and a bit of “Cliff Clavin” to Tom that everyone will enjoy.

So many of the best story ideas come from one’s own life experiences and UP is no different.   As a child, writer/director Pete Docter grew up in Minnesota.  “There was a kind of creek area.  I remember going back there and pretending I was stomping through the jungle and snakes.  I shot a couple of Super 8 movies with my friends back there and pretended it was the wilds of South America.”    It may have taken him a few years, but with UP, Docter has brought those childhood fantasies to life in the forms of Carl and Russell.  

Docter’s creative process on UP with writing/directing partner Bob Peterson is truly one of collaboration.    According to Docter, “We started by talking and making lists and drawing.  One of the first key images that came out was this drawing I’d done of this super grouchy hexi-colored and green, this sour guy, with this really wrinkly expression on his face holding these happy fun colorful balloons.  Something about the contrast of those two things made us laugh and feel as though there was some potential there.  So that’s the genesis of the idea.”  As for the beautiful visuals, “we were also experimenting with a lot of escape kind of ideas, and this floating house was just very poetic and interesting and appealing.  So we put the grouchy guy in the floating house with balloons and just kind of answering the questions of where he was going and where’s he coming from and why.  That’s what led to the story.”

The animation, while extremely detailed and advanced, has a very simplistic essence and innocence that elevates the emotional levels of the film. Key is the use of color, particularly in the balloons.  For the balloon sequences, there are actually over 10,000 individual balloons created and strung above the house and over 20,000 balloons when the house is soaring through the air. But the color is so vibrant, so saturated, so well defined and chosen that every time the balloons appear on screen, you have to smile.  Just one look lifts your heart, lifts your mood.  The color palette and magical feeling even follows through into our feathered friend Kevin.  In addition to the colors and textures, for the first time Pixar created feathers with Kevin’s detail intricately exacting and shimmeringly magical.

Words cannot describe the standard of technical achievement and excellence that Pixar achieves with UP.  Shooting in Real D-3D for the first time ever, Pixar really raises the bar, crossing into a new level of excellence, with attention to detail and texturization – each fiber of fabric, each individual feather, brush strokes on canvas – breathtaking and mind boggling. This one facet alone sets the tone of each character.  Take a look at Carl and his ties, his shirt, his suit – a cotton button down shirt that looks like classic Brooks Brothers; a wool tweed suit; bulky, knobby fabricked cotton ties that were fashionable in the late 50’s and 60’s. Those details not only speak volumes about Carl, but are all tactile sensations that the Pixar magicians created with detailed visual textures.  And how about Russell and his patches?  The intricacy of each patch and the embroidered stitching that creates each one; again, texturization that causes you to imagine running your fingers over each patch with its intricate embroidery and with just that tactile imagery, you feel a sense of pride and accomplishment, all which is achieved through visuals. Then there’s a whole other level with the creation of Kevin – each individual feather.  Even the house, right down to the rust on the spout of the garden hose, is all dimensionally and visually tactile.

As if shooting for the first time in 3D wasn’t enough of a challenge, an endeavor of this nature required multiple Directors of Photography, one for  for camera and one for lighting and numerous computer magicians.  According to producer Jonas Rivera, “It was a tall order.  One of the things that UP presented for us was a new technical hurdle. . .This film was more about caricature.  That became our real challenge. . .For UP, this is about a house that floats away with 20,000 balloons so it required a certain amount of whimsy and caricature.  The challenge for our computer scientists was, how do you distill something down to its essence?”   It is the answer to this question that lends to the clean, sharp distinctive animation of UP.   “ [T]he shape language is a little more simplified.  The color palettes are a little bolder.  The surface textures, we called it “simplexity”, is the name we coined for it.  It’s just as hard if not harder to get that in the computer. . . that became a real technical challenge.  Throwing 3D on top of that was just another level. . . With 3D we wanted it to be subdued and subtle. . .We want them [audience] to say they’re just watching a movie or experiencing the story.  It happens to be in 3D and that might make it more immersive. “

And if the technical aspects weren’t challenging enough, Docter wanted authenticity as a basis for the adventures which allowed the Pixar design team to have an adventure of their own – a trip to the jungles of South America to the Tepui Mountains, a series of 115 table top mesas high above the clouds where Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana intersect. Actually climbing Mount Roraima and the moving onto Matawi Tepui (also known as “place of the dead) and ultimately, traversing the slippery rocks and mists of Angel Falls in Venezuela, the highest waterfall in the world dropping 3,212 feet from the summit of Auyantepui, the team included in the film much of the imagery and vegetation they found  – Bonnetia trees, black rocks with pink flowers “growing” out of them, Stegolepis plants and of course, Angel Falls – all captured in animation to its most breathtaking beauty.

A full and complete package with every component sheer perfection, UP is the embodiment of the best ideals of Walt Disney and Pixar.   One of the cleverist and most inventive stories to come around in a long time, the story alone is so pure and so imaginative, as to grab anyone’s attention and lock it in from the opening frame.  The emotion UP evokes is genuine. From the opening dreams of adventure of two children, to their life together (which by the way is the most effective and compact telling of a backstory I have ever seen) intersecting with the dreams of another boy who helps the boy inside a 78 year old man fulfill his dreams and adventures – priceless. 

You laugh, you laugh some more, you keep laughing, and then you even get a few tears in your eye and a tug on your heartstrings, but there is not a moment in this film where there’s not a smile on your face or in your heart, as you soar through the skies UP on an adventure with Russell and Carl, and all the while wishing for your very own.  Adventure, family, daydreams, fun and love – UP is a can’t miss, must see, 24 kt. Oscar gold film.

Carl – Ed Asner

Russell – Jordan Nagai

Muntz – Christopher Plummer


Co-Directors and Writers, Pete Docter and Bob Peterson.  Rated G.

One thought on “Movie Review: UP — Good”

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