Pixar’s tenth feature is a great deal more than the tale of an old guy who ties a bunch of balloons to his house. Certainly this ‘high concept’ idea figures prominently, but then Up is also a story about love and bereavement, a look at lost ideals, a throwback to those adventure yarns from Journey to the Centre of the Earth to The Land That Time Forgot, a slapstick comedy, and more besides. Just looking at some of the supporting characters you will find a young boy with issues at home and a whole host of talking dogs. Plus there are the various lessons to be learnt and messages to relay to the audience; some on an ecological bent, others more sentimental. Something of an epic for Pixar, then? Well almost…
In truth, Up plays out like a film and its sequel squeezed into a single running time. The crux of the plot is that widower Carl (voiced by Ed Asner), once upon a time a shy young boy who idolised adventurer/explorer Charles Muntz, decides upon travelling to Paradise Falls in Venezuela as a means of paying tribute to his recently deceased wife. That he does so courtesy of hundreds of balloons attached to his house is both a wonderfully childlike and visual idea from Pixar and an attempt to recapture that childhood sense of adventure, the very thing, in fact, which brought Carl and his wife together in the first. And yet whilst such a hair-brained scheme would, in many filmmakers’ hands, occupy an entire feature-length production, it turns out to be a remarkably effective means of travel. One storm, one unexpected stowaway (a young scout, also the aforementioned child with parental problems), and twenty minutes of screen time later, and we have already arrived at our destination.
To discuss the plotting any further would be to head into spoiler territory, although the various ideas and themes mentioned at the start of this review should give fair indication. However, the manner in which Up deals with Carl’s arrival into Venezuela in many ways sums up its principle flaw. This is a film which takes on too much and, as a result, cannot hope to satisfy all of its aims. The finest moment comes near the start during a sequence that could almost be taken as a ‘mini-movie’ in its own right. Without dialogue we trace Carl and his wife Ellie from childhood, through courtship, marriage and old age, to her eventual death. This sequence perfectly captures Up’s and Pixar’s ability to tell a great deal through the tiniest of moments and the lightest of touches. The fact that it contains such charm, humour and, most importantly, emotional weight is really quite remarkable, especially given its approximately ten-minute duration. However, the fact that it would work just as well as a separate entity, and therefore exists within its own bubble outside of Up’s bigger concerns, even as it triggers the narrative’s main trajectory, is telling. Unencumbered by a wealth of ideas all jostling for attention and instead simply focussing on a very straightforward little story (Carl’s history with Ellie), it is able to breathe more easily and as such succeeds fully.
It would be unfair to focus too heavily on the flaws as this ‘mini-movie’ also shares a number of Up’s strong points. The film is very funny throughout, courtesy of both its expertly timed sight gags and some of its cleverer conceits. The talking dogs sub-plot, whilst potentially ridiculous sounding on paper, comes across especially well. Accusations of cutesy anthropomorphism are neatly side-stepped by the decision to have them talk as though badly dubbed; an idea that, at once, allows them to retain some canine characteristics and offer up some wonderful lines. Similarly the animation is uniformly excellent. The central idea of balloons on a house is, of course, primarily visual and great pains have been taken in this regard. On the one hand, Up’s delving into Jules Verne-ish territory prompts some immense set pieces that would never succeed in live action terms, no matter how much CGI was applied. On the other, it is also used just as well on the smaller elements; I found myself particularly impressed, and oftentimes distracted, by the design of Carl’s ears - I don’t know why exactly, but they just seemed to work.
Furthermore, Up does hold together especially well. Despite the surfeit of ideas, every component part fits together quite nicely and is tied up seamlessly once we’ve reached the end. And yet whilst Up does satisfies the visual, narrative and humour requisites, its inability to focus squarely on so many of these ideas and themes - inasmuch as each can be allowed to develop to its furthest - does mean that the film lacks that killer punch. What starts out as an exploration of love and loss ceases to become such a thing when the filmmakers have too many elements to similarly build upon. Aspects remain, of course, but never quite to the extent that we would perhaps hope. Likewise, the character of the young scout, or later on the chief villain, appear to be there almost solely as narrative tools; a means of getting towards that very neat ending. Needless to say, the filmmakers are able to get some mileage out of both in terms of character quirks, the odd one-liner, etc. Yet the taste of two-dimensional development remains. Moreover, the simple fact that Up is, predominantly, an animated film intended for family audiences doesn’t let it off the hook in such matters entirely. The disappointment at the lack of an overall emotional punch is created simply because it has been set up to be there. You sense that the driving force behind the film is Carl’s ‘emotional journey’, if you will, and indeed the commentary that appears on this disc places especial prominence upon it. But ultimately it is only there in parts, as a result of having been obscured by too many other parts from too many ideas fighting for room.
And so we arrive at a film that entertains, certainly, and provides plenty of distraction. Technically, it is a marvel to look at, and brimful of smart visual quirks, gags and ideas. But then it is also brimful of plenty of other elements and as such can’t help but suffocate itself a little. I say a little as the balance between what is striking about Up (and fully deserving of applause) and what disappoints undoubtedly leans to towards the former. Yet that disappointment does leave a certain aftertaste, thereby placing the film in Pixar’s second tier of achievements to date. It is undoubtedly not their worst, but then it is some distance of their best also.
As we should no doubt expect, Up looks stunning, even on standard definition DVD. The film comes in a ratio of 1.78:1, is anamorphically enhanced, and pretty much as flawless as you can get on this definition. The colours are rich, the level of detail perfect and the clarity likewise. Similarly, the DD5.1 soundtrack does everything you would expect of it. In fact, there’s very little to say; Pixar’s discs have come to be known as offering excellent presentations and this particular disc offers no sudden lurch in quality control.
As for extras, this single-disc SD edition misses out on a number of those found on the various Blu-ray editions. However, we do find an amiable, chatty commentary by director Pete Doctor and co-creator Bob Paterson. Very few grand revelations here, but they make for good company and keep up the discussion throughout. In fact, they only pause once and intentionally so as a specific moment unfolds onscreen. Elsewhere the disc offers up two shorts, Partly Cloudy (which accompanied Up’s theatrical showings) and Dug’s Special Mission, a newly created piece that serves a prequel of sorts to the main feature. I say of sorts as it shows a handful of scenes which figure prior to Dug’s appearance in Up, thereby explaining how and why he meets up Carl in the first place. Both shorts are highly entertaining: Partly Cloudy is a series of wordless visual gags set amongst a bunch of clouds as they set about creating babies of various species and pass them onto storks for delivery; Dug’s Special Mission plays on the talking dog element that worked so well in Up itself.
Rounding off the package we also find a pair of featurettes. ‘Adventure is Out There’ discusses the creative team’s trip to Venezuela for inspiration and at 22 minutes in length never outstays its welcome. ‘The Many Endings of Muntz’, meanwhile, discusses proposed alternate endings to the film and presents some rough storyboards for some of the ideas. Once again, it’s an inoffensive piece and at barely five minutes passes by quite quickly, but then it also offers some interesting insights, particularly with regards to what the filmmakers thought they could and couldn’t get away with considering the predominantly young audience Up was going to attract.