Mild spoilage, nothing that you can’t get from the trailer.
Well, well, Pixar. For a short period of time, I thought you’d hit your heyday and were becoming a weak version of yourself, with movies like “Cars” that fell into the same “fuck quality, let’s make some money” trap that sinks its teeth into most franchises, particularly those aimed at children. (Or perhaps—“Cars” defenders, I will confess that I had no desire to even see it.) Little did I realize that you were just buying some time and making some cash before you went into your masterpiece phase. For those who feared “Wall-E” was a one-off shot at true artistic expression, I’ll have you know that “Up”, while very different in many ways, is just as good. In a sense, it might be better, because while I didn’t want to run right back to the theater to see “Wall-E”, I think I’ll be doing that with “Up”.
And thank god for it. The paradox of the children’s entertainment business is the very thing that makes it tend towards utter crap is the thing that could give its makers the freedom to experiment and strive to make beautiful, meaningful work. And that’s the fact that it’s a sound investment for the studios. Obviously, some children’s movies are better than others, but as long as a children’s movie accomplishes the goal of shutting kids up for an hour and a half, especially repeatedly, then it will be a smash not only in the theater, but especially in DVD sales. This means you don’t have to try too hard to make something great, so long as it’s distracting, as much of Disney’s output demonstrates. But the freedom to make crap is often the same freedom to make real art. The studio system is understandably wary of movies that have high standards for themselves, because they (quite possibly wisely) believe that modern audiences prefer their entertainment light and forgettable, and want their classics to be old. But Pixar has made enough money that they get to tell Disney what to do. (Rumor I’ve heard is that Pixar basically pushed Disney to make “The Princess and the Frog”, arguing that they can and should put the resources to keeping up the classic animation division. That’s clout.)
Without the gimmick of robots and a completely silent first half of the movie, you probably won’t get as many raves for the deft storytelling of “Up”, and that’s a shame, because I’m still trying to unpack how swiftly but completely they managed to tell the story of the elderly couple whose life together kicks off the rest of the movie. All told, their entire life from their childhood until the wife dies is conveyed in a neat, mostly dialogue-free 20 minutes, but you end up believing in them as people so thoroughly that when the wife does die, there’s not a dry eye in the house. And they manage to sustain that feeling for the old man’s loss throughout the movie, which is no small feat, considering the crazy twists the plot takes. “Definitely the weepiest of Pixar movies,” my friend said as we left the theater.
And it is, but it doesn’t buy the tears on the cheap. Nor is it a depressing movie. (Duh! Kid’s movie. It’s probably illegal now to make them too sad.) Any movie that has an army of dogs that have collars programmed so that they can express themselves in English cannot be a depressing movie. Everyone’s made jokes before about the stupid things dogs would say if they could talk, but Pixar takes that joke and totally runs with it, and it’s fucking hilarious. You learn all about the up and downsides of having an all-dog army. On one hand, they enjoy slavish obedience. On the other hand, dogs do have attention span and impulse control problems.
Which leads me to another lavish praise for the decision-making that went into “Up”. I realize they have the luxury of refining the script for years while they actually animate the thing, but still, it’s pretty awesome how they get you to buy the world of “Up”, where you could lift a house off its foundation with enough helium balloons, and someone who lives in isolation could develop the technology to get dogs to talk. They’re obviously cribbing a lot from “The Wizard of Oz”, including the way that a storm that wrecks the interior of the house creates the mental bridge to the other world (which is still in ours—it’s supposed to be Paradise Falls), but it’s more than the escape through storms and through wind to the place where the adventures happen. They also borrow liberally from the way “The Wizard of Oz” doesn’t waste your time trying to explain the world Dorothy falls into more than absolutely necessary to get the plot moving. (We know, for instance, that Dorothy has to get to the Emerald City, but we have no idea where Oz is or what created it, or how she really got there.) In general, they don’t overtell the story, relying heavily on visual cues and allowing the audience to be intelligent enough to fill in the blanks.
A quick note about the characters: I loved that Pixar went with a choice for the leads that is the sort of thing that would make your more prejudiced money people shake in their boots. I can’t imagine trying to convince any money people that kids will line up to see a movie where a man in his 70s that uses a cane is the conquering hero. Nor can I imagine that anyone but Pixar would have the clout to put an Asian-American kid at the center of a story, and then make his race a non-issue and avoid stereotyping him. Beyond that, the kid character really diverts from the trend in movies where kids are not very kidlike, because they’re hyper competent, sassy, emotionally mature, and worldly, often passing adults in their wisdom. I figure that fantasy of children is put in children’s movies because it flatters children, but Pixar doesn’t give into the urge. Russell is a real kid—whiny, self-absorbed, only half-aware of the complicated world of adults. And Mr. Frederickson is a very real old man, whose age is important, but not the beginning or end of his characterization. The movie wouldn’t have worked without the very human characters at the center of it.
Unfortunately, the one female character in the film of any note (besides the bird) is Ellie, the deceased wife. It’s hard to be too mad about this, because they actually give her a real personality before they kill her off, and they allow her to be an old woman, to boot, which is more than any of the Manic Pixie Dream Girls get. It’s amazing how much of her personality comes across in the short period she’s onscreen, and it makes you long for a Pixar movie that actually puts a woman front and center as the main character. They’re able to give us old men and whiny kids, so why not a woman?