Review: UP *Mild Spoilers*
This is going to sound strange. I, like many, enjoyed Pixar's tenth feature length film, Up, a lot, but I am going to spend most of the following review being critical of its shortcomings. The bay area companys particular brand of magic is in full effect, and it is most definitely so in the opening moments involving a silent montage of Carl Fredricksen's life (from 5 to 75) with his soul-mate Ellie, nothing that follows ever reaches that high water-mark. Pixar has a found a real knack for graceful silent story telling giving the bulk of a lifetime in a few simple moments that say so much and Up managed to squeeze more than a tear out of me (even as the significance and details of a life in miniature went way over the heads of my own young children sitting next to me). Nevertheless, that grace is somewhat at odds, tonally, with the indulgences of the filmmakers who slap piecemeal a lot of images and story ideas without managing to rope everything together (they dangle like the stray balloon's moving Carl from location to location). The remaining story is not without its charms and thrills, and it is a daring daring to put a 75 year old man as the hero and centerpiece of the story, but it feels more than a little incomplete. Less polished than Pete Doctor's previous Monster's Inc., and well behind Ratatouille, Wall-E or The Incredibles. If anything, it resembles Hayao Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle more than the previous Pixar entries.
For such focus on few players, the characters never feel fully fleshed out, most particularly the enthusiastic Boyscout stowaway, Russell. Ellie, Carl's wife in the opening sequence, had more personality and she is gone in mere moments. The hastily pasted in villain, Carl's childhood idol and source of his dreams, Charles Muntz leans towards a Dr. Moreau type crossed with Indiana Jones, but is voiced rather blandly by Christopher Plummer, with highly questionable motivation or even competence. In fact the movie never found a way to satisfyingly meld its matinee serial action set-pieces, familiar to lovers of King Kong, George Lucas and Harry O. Hoyt, with its quiet ruminations of frumpy surrogate father Carl. And the talking dogs, frankly, suck. Sure, Pixar finds a way not to follow into the schmaltzy cute talking animals of Disney or pop cultural snark of Dream Works, but talking dogs (even if it is through technological collars) who serve dinner (and play poker)? Ho Hum. When they started flying airplanes, I was pining for Gromit to show up with a little class.
At one point, Russell, a Junior Wilderness Explorer for long enough to collect all the badges save 'helping the elderly' but has never really been outside suburban comfort, says to Carl in one of his few brainstorms, "The wilderness is actually pretty wild." It is a strange bit of dialogue in a movie that is actually built on comfort and convenience and finding joy in that. The film is ostensibly about Carl coming out of his comfort zone (both as a child, and then as an elder) and reconciling expectations and dreams with reality, before having his cake and eating it too. Yet the film never actually attempts him earn anything. The jungle is never that threatening. Moving his house around tethered to him while traversing the landscape conveniently ignores physics and logistics (and I have no problem suspending disbelief on this) to the point that it was just a prop, heck an inconvenience. Even the action beats at high altitudes seem safe and comfy. There is a lot of commotion in the third act of Up, but I preferred the boring parts. The movie shines when more when a character quietly looks through a photo album and strains when the house is ablaze.
Lastly, I'll say that Carls jettisoning of his past for a shiny glistening future, "The Spirit of Adventure," is an interesting metaphor for Pixar as a company. They are aware of what has come before, and honor it, but are happy to take their stories to new places with new and interesting tools (both technology and storytelling). If this review sounds like I'm unfairly bashing the successful and loved studio, it is only because they have set the bar so high for so long (Up gently kicks the pants off any other American studios recent output, save only Coraline, which was rather boutique and baroque). But it still needed a few more passes through the typewriter for perfection. And please lose the talking dogs.