Up Review

After trying to explain why Pixar's stilted narrative ambition has become disappointing in my cinema review of Up, I'm now ready to focus more closely on the latest offering from the computer animation titan. A second viewing actually proved more enjoyable than expected, maintaining what I liked originally and dulling some of the things I didn't, so I'm also boosting the number grade to an 8 from the 7 I'd previously given. Other Pixar films played better for me at the cinema than at home, but the opposite proved true this time. A high 7 on first impression now changes to a low 8 when experienced again. I'll stand by the earlier review without hesitation and further explain myself here.


Yes, it's a cartoon. Of course Up is a piece of animation made by the people who brought us talking toys and monsters and superheroes and so on. Pixar has previously merged obvious fantasy with some degree of reality, drifting away from logic to emphasize impossible aspects grounded in everyday life. The classic Disney animation is very similar in this regard, and there's nothing that I can think of from the canonical Disney cartoons that resembles a true pretense of reality. Along comes Up, which uses human characters and emotions, and shares a recognizable setting with our modern society. Animals "talk" but only because of an enabling invention. The central premise involves a leap of faith to allow for the idea that a house could be transported by helium balloons, but it's to be forgiven. We are, after all, watching a cartoon. And yet, it's a remarkably manipulative cartoon. It's a cartoon that includes a montage in the opening few minutes which tugs at anyone's heartstrings who has the proper ventricle system in place. It's a cartoon that takes human characters and transfers the viewer's own emotions involving parental neglect, divorce, love, aging, unmet dreams, and loss onto the screen. If Up can so effectively evoke the real world then I don't see why it's not subject to at least some scrutiny on narrative consistency.

For instance, how does super explorer Charles Muntz manage to have so much vim and vigor in what is presumably 2009 when he must have been born around the turn of the twentieth century? Pretty impressive for a centenarian. (An Easter egg on disc one of the Blu-ray actually addresses this by revealing something in an earlier draft of the screenplay where Muntz found the fountain of youth through a bird's egg, but since it's completely ignored in the finished film such information is of little consequence.) And how does the rickety and old Carl Fredricksen who can't even walk down his own stairs at the start manage to turn into a geriatric action hero by film's end? The dogs can fly planes? And cook? Where does the food come from? It's fine if you're not bothered by any of this, and only the Muntz age discrepancy feels especially false in the context of the film. I'm more than willing to overlook most of these stretches in logic for the sake of the children or whatever, but what still bugs me, both then and now, is how lazy the storytelling becomes after the poignant and seemingly sincere first half of the film.

There's no bitterness in my opinion of Up. I found that first half or so to be, alongside Wall-E's initial thirty minutes, the most, in terms of the serious and adult-minded viewer, artistically accomplished sequences yet found in a Pixar feature. On their own, those several minutes are encouraging as to the storytelling capabilities and intentions at Pixar. Even prior to the "married life" montage in Up, the Movietown News opening is entertaining and clever, and the scenes with Carl and Ellie as children serve their purpose well. Then the montage plays and it's simply wonderful. I think part of its brilliance is in the universal effect it has. You can watch that montage and take away the beauty of long-lasting love or the disappointment in not fulfilling promises to yourself or the daily struggles of life or any number of things. There's so much in such a short time span. Michael Giacchino's score, which boringly mimics big action movies late in the film, adds a lot here as well, sounding at once whimsical and melancholy and playing on just the right level of emotion. It's a bold statement, but I do think the Up montage and its complementary scene late in the film as Carl looks back at the scrapbook combine to form truly one of the finest, most concise yet still meaningful portrayals of the long-term emotions surrounding that sort of relationship. The clincher is Carl discovering, after all he's gone through to visit Paradise Falls, Ellie's gratitude and total lack of regret for their time together. It's cinematic wish fulfillment of the highest order.

That sort of emotional capital goes a long way when considering the film as a whole. If a movie has such a strong ability to drain our tear ducts then how can it not be magnificent? I've read one opinion after another as to how great this scene is, how it made someone cry or almost cry, and so on. Indeed, it's a fantastic sequence. But it also has virtually nothing to do with the weak, formulaic turn Up takes when impossibly old Charles Muntz enters the picture. Muntz is a villain for the sake of having a villain. He apparently spent decades searching for a bird that Carl and his inadvertent traveling companion Russell come upon immediately when landing near Paradise Falls. Muntz has been humiliated and disgraced, but I still don't understand the leap to him being a homicidal maniac. Something feels off there and I don't like it. Why does almost every Pixar movie require a crazy bad guy? A slow, simple character study would be most welcomed at this one point. Up seemed headed in that direction until Muntz came along, leaving manufactured conflict in his wake. The straight action scenes lack suspense and betray the originality seen in the earlier parts of the film.

It's the quick descent into formulaic appeasement that most bothers me about Up. The emphasis on embracing adventure is great and serves as a welcome reminder to simply experience things firsthand. The Dug character is adorable if you like dogs. Spencer Tracy lookalike Carl is a fine enough protagonist, maybe even the most multi-dimensional animated human in a Pixar or Disney cartoon feature. An unnecessary subplot involving Russell's divorced or separated parents seems forced, but it's harmless in comparison to this need on the part of Pixar or director and co-writer Pete Docter or whomever is responsible to provide an action sequence where the result inevitably favors the primary characters. You know Carl will triumph and that Russell will be fine. Kevin and Dug likewise have nothing to worry about. Why, I ask with complete sincerity, is such a scene or build-up necessary? Why do mainstream, popular films need logic-defying triumph over the antagonist? When Pixar can completely ignore that sort of contrived nonsense then I'll be happy. One of my points in the earlier review was that the masses don't seem to want the lazy narrative issues to go away. That I do, that I wish Pixar would expand animation beyond mere kids stuff and play to the general audiences who have long supported Disney and Pixar by reinventing the traditional narrative instead of following a simple and stale pattern which always includes the threat of violence at the hands of bad guys, met with apparent dissent in my previous opinion. Fine, but judging by Pixar's vast if selective capabilities in Up and Wall-E and other films, it's not too much to request a break with the mainstream across an entire film instead of just a half hour or forty-five minutes. I'll be first in line to defend that film.

The Disc

Disney trots out a four-disc release for Up. There are two Blu-ray discs, a DVD with the film that also repeats the extras of BD disc one and a digital copy.

My main impression of Up in 1080p high definition is that the image looks basically flawless. It's presented on a dual-layered disc in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Colors are remarkably bright and vibrant. Detail is, as expected with a Pixar Blu-ray, strong to the level of stunning. The clarity and depth seem impossible to criticize. People know and expect Pixar BD's to look spectacular and Up doesn't disappoint.

Audio, too, is about as strong as can be. Planes and various sound effects utilize the surround channels well on the English DTS-HD 5.1 track. Speakers boom with enthusiasm. Everything is clear and precise. Additional options are provided for French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital as well as an English 2.0 Dolby Digital track. The directors commentary is even dubbed in both French and Spanish. Subtitles, white in color, can be accessed in English for the hearing impaired, French and Spanish.

Upon loading, a menu screen has the option for English, French and Spanish operations (with disc two adding an additional five more) but the disc is nonetheless region-locked for "A." Nice-looking menus, including a screen saver which darkens the picture after so many minutes of inactivity, indicate a real attention to detail here. "Cine-Explore," a commentary by director Pete Docter and co-director Bob Peterson that also has storyboards and other various images pop up in small boxes over the film, can be accessed at the "Play Movie" stage of the menu. Docter and Peterson, who also did Monsters, Inc., are easygoing, knowledgeable guys who add a nice peek behind the curtain on the making of the film. It's a reminder of just how much detail and effort goes into making these pictures.

Disc one of the Blu-ray has the aforementioned Easter egg, called "The Egg" (1:55) which explains the unused subplot involving Muntz's age. Otherwise, extra features include the short which played theatrically before Up, "Partly Cloudy" (5:46) and a new entry for this disc, "Dug's Special Mission" (4:46). The latter seems to include a slight gaffe since it's supposed to take place just before Carl and Russell first meet Dug but shows Alpha with his high-pitched chipmunk voice. In the actual film, Dug and the other canines are shown registering surprise at how Alpha's voice sounds when, if you go by what's shown in the short, the dogs had just been interacting with him.

There's also "Adventure is Out There" (22:17), a featurette exploring the journey taken by a dozen Pixar employees to Venezuela prior to animating the film. Guide Adrian Warren is also interviewed, and we see some fascinating details both about the mountains themselves and of how faithful the animators stayed to the setting. It's said that some of the tepuis, as the mountains are called, in this area have never been set foot on by humans. The trip continues near Angel Falls, the world's highest waterfall, which served as a model for the fictional Paradise Falls in the film. Alternate ways to say goodbye to the explorer Muntz are shown in "The Many Endings of Muntz" (4:56), a fun combination of storyboards and abandoned ideas. Even here it seems sort of like the Pixar people don't really know what to do with this character. Also on the first Blu-ray disc is a primer for Disney File Digital Copy which runs one minute and previews for Santa Buddies, Ponyo, Dumbo 70th Anniversary, a teaser for Toy Story 3 and a few miscellaneous Disney-related advertisements. BD-Live content can be found here too.

Disc two picks things back up with a series of short documentaries on the production. All are actually quite entertaining to watch and give a better understanding of the intended motivations of various aspects of the film. There are seven of these and they are:

"Geriatric Hero" (6:24) - the process of getting Carl's movements and physical features accurate while still keeping somewhat exaggerated proportions (like his gigantic head) is explored

"Canine Companions" (8:26) - Pixar brought in a dog behavior expert to better teach them about dog hierarchy and how the animals interact with each other

"Russell: Wilderness Explorer" (9:00) - here we see the animator who inspired Russell's physical appearance show us some of the other ways the character could have looked and director Pete Docter talks about how he got Jordan Nagai, the young boy who voiced the character, to play him authentically without sounding either too polished or unrefined

"Our Giant Flightless Friend, Kevin" (5:04) - the bird character Muntz so desperately tries to find was actually based on a combination of several birds, including an ostrich which pops up here

"Homemakers of Pixar" (4:38) - the desire to make Carl's house look like a typical home someone's grandparents would live in is discussed, as is the realization that audiences would see the flying house and consider it to be an embodiment of Carl's wife Ellie

"Balloons and Flight" (6:25) - a short overview of dirigibles and animating the balloons so that it doesn't seem obviously unbelievable for a house to take off into the sky

"Composing for Characters" (7:37) - Michael Giacchino talks about his theme for Ellie and how he created themes for the main characters, eventually using a combination of them in the climactic fight scene

Further extras on the second disc include an alternate take on the "Married Life" (9:15) montage which has the sequence go in a considerably less effective direction. Instead of the sweet emphasis on growing old together, the original thought was to have Carl and Ellie punch, yes punch, each other repeatedly through the years. Some discussion of that thankfully abandoned idea is followed by a storyboard display of what would have followed. Next is the "Up Promo Montage" (6:00), the origins or intent of which I'm not certain. It's basically a miscellaneous assortment of finished bits and scenes which aren't in the film and could conceivably have been shown as a promotional reel.

The Global Guardian Badge Game is a fantastic idea in theory, better educating the young and old on geography, but it was nearly impossible to play for me. I hope others have better luck with the operational end of that. Finally, what's billed as "Worldwide Trailers" on the menu actually contains just two previews for Up that I could find and they're both originally for American audiences.

The DVD which is also included in the package has the film and the special features from disc one of the Blu-ray. Screen captures included with this review are taken from that standard definition disc.

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