The opening fifteen minutes of Pixar’s latest digital animation Up is the finest quarter hour of cinema I have seen so far this year – a jaw-dropping sequence that would be the pride of any of the American greats; Chaplin, Welles, Kubrick or Spielberg.

In a few deft, deliberate strokes, directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson encapsulate the life-long love affair between the square-headed Carl Fredericksen and his delicate wife Ellie, from their first meeting as children through marriage, middle-age, happy retirement and, brace yourself, her death. Yes, death. It’s an indication of how advanced and ambitious Pixar have become that the company not only write stories for human (as opposed to superhuman) characters, they have the courage to put them into emotionally realistic (and, going by the stifled sobs at the screening I attended) quietly devastating situations.

From that point on, viewers who can keep their eyes dry will witness one of the sweetest, funniest stories the animation studio has produced yet. Widowed and retired from his balloon-selling business, 79 year old Carl (Ed Asner) wants only to live out his days in the house he built with Ellie. But, a giant construction company wants to buy him out, and after a series of unfortunate incidents, Carl must concede. Rather than move to a retirement home, however, Carl straps 25,000 helium balloons to the roof of the house, prying it from its foundation and carrying it skyward.

Carl intends to fly his house to Venezuela and visit the Lost World he heard his childhood hero Edward Muntz (Christopher Plummer) talk about, seventy years before. However, he’s got a stowaway in the form of Russell (Jordan Nagai), a chubby boy scout who happened to be standing on the porch when the house took off. Together, the two mismatched heroes begin an adventure that takes in forgotten explorers, gawky 15-foot rare birds and a platoon of talking dogs.

Although it’s easy to forget as you get caught up in watching it, Up is a film that is aimed at children. Notwithstanding the continuous movement and endless incident that the family audience demands, Pixar have crafted an incredibly refined and delicate picture, which places visual beauty and hard-earned emotion ahead of flashy sensation and pop-culture references. The computing power required to generate the wondrous 3-D images is one thing, but the real cinematic craft on display here is the same one that has been exercised since the dawn of movies – careful, considered writing.

The scripting and characterisation that acts as the foundation for Pixar’s success is so well-engineered it can support any flight of fancy the filmmakers care to build on top of it. This bedrock extends to the perfectly chosen voice cast, with brilliant turns from a gruff Asner and a smooth Plummer matched by nine year-old first-timer Nagai as the tireless Russell.

Up must be the first kid’s film to feature an extended homage to Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, along with nods to The Boys From Brazil and Indiana Jones. Keen-eyed viewers will also spot Pixar’s recurring in-jokes; a voice cameo from actor John Ratzenberger (who has appeared in all of the companies films), a prominent use of the alpha-numerical code A113 (after the room at CalTech where the Pixar boffins studied) and another drive-by from Toy Story’s Pizza Planet delivery van.

1 comment:

clom said...

Great review, completely reflects my feeling of it. There were moments of visual poetry in there that were totally awe-inspiring.

How you are able to imbue melancholy in sagging balloons defies any rational explanation, but they manage it.

There are tiny details in the world as well that demonstrate the care and craft that go into the design, everything is there for a reason and is supported by the writing.

My rather pregnant missus spent a significant portion of the film crying with both happiness and sadness.

In terms of early emotional memory the opening 15 minutes of Up will rightfully come to be viewed alongside the death of Bambi's ma.