Reach for the sky!

Shane Murray 1 October 2009

Film Review: Up (4 Stars)

Pixar’s latest is a triumphant return to classic adventure film-making

After the much heralded Wall-E, almost anything that Pixar made was going to be treated as a step down. Wall-E was treated as being a paradigm shift in the making of animated films and, to a lesser extent, in children’s films, as signalled by the long, dialogue-free opening. At the end of the day though, Pixar is an animation studio that makes films for Disney and can’t be expected to push the boat with avant-garde experiments every time it makes a film.

The real question is whether anyone, especially what is supposedly Pixar’s core audience, children, necessarily wants another Wall-E. While it was phenomenally successful with adult critics and earned a very healthy $534m worldwide, Wall-E was noticeably not nearly as popular with children, who found the film too long and occasionally boring. As such, Up represents a kind of a return to form for Pixar. It is a far more conventional animated film than Wall-E with (mostly) human, recognisable characters and pretty much none-stop slapstick and spectacle, with an aggressively linear plot. Do any of these things make Up a better or worse film than Wall-E? Not really, it’s just a different type of film, and it is arguably much more likely to entertain kids than its predecessor.

In spite of this more conventional approach, Up is also recognisably a Pixar film, with all of the studios qualities instantly recognisable. First of all, the opening scenes set in America follow Pixar’s fairly sentimental, Capra-esque, and visually stunning vision of America. Even the parts that aren’t set in the 1950s have that kind of a timeless, American feel to them, a world in which anything is possible and adventure is only a moment away. It might not be very realistic, but the wholesome, safe America of Pixar is certainly entrancing.

However, the film then shatters the safe vision of the world in the course of its opening fifteen minutes. We see Carl and Ellie meet as children and bond over their mutual admiration for Charles Muntz, a daredevil explorer, and their desire to follow in his footsteps to Paradise Falls in South America.

We then swiftly follow the couple through married life up until Ellie’s death. It’s a heartbreaking and effective montage that builds up sympathy for the character before leading her to a natural, but unexpected death. Up, like other Pixar films, tries to respect what its audience can cope with, rather than trying to talk down to children.

More importantly, it gives the main plot some emotional heft, as Carl, aiming to fulfil a life-long promise to Ellie and facing the loss of their house, attempts to fly the house to South America with the aid of hundreds of helium filled balloons. He also picks up a stowaway, Russell, a “Wilderness Explorer”, who was trying to get his “Assisting the Elderly” badge to become a Senior Wilderness Explorer. The two eventually arrive in South America and become involved in a hunt for a rare bird.

The action scenes wish follow put any number of live-action blockbusters to shame. In particular, given the jungle setting, I spent a lot of time wondering, “Why couldn’t the fourth Indiana Jones been this good?” In addition to some great action set-pieces, the film is, importantly, very, very funny. To begin with, the film has quite a lot of good Looney Tunes type slapstick in it that it also uses frequently and inventively. From there, the interaction between the two main characters, Carl the endearingly grumpy old man, and Russell, the clueless, nervous kid is constantly well-judged, and ends up being both poignant and funny.

Finally, the film, like all Pixar films, is beautifully animated. The South American scenes have an especially epic and alien quality to them, while the angular, simple drawings are consistently, fantastically beautiful. Unlike most CGI films, it avoids the trap of trying to look too realistic and is instead an enjoyably cartoonish version of the world. This neatly summarises the appeal of Up, as with most Pixar films: it is a family film that can genuinely be enjoyed by the whole family, without patronising either children or adults. The only criticism that could be made is that the film’s moral eventually comes off as somewhat trite, but it’s not really the point of an animated film to be philosophically deep, is it?

Shane Murray