Saturday, May 30, 2009

As my wife pointed out after exiting the theatre, Up has the saddest beginning to an animated movie since Bambi’s mum got shot. Here we have a boy and a girl falling in love. They have all kinds of hopes for the future – they want to have a family and they want to have all kinds of adventures. But they find out that they can’t have children and they’re never able to save up enough money to travel (they’re always raiding their travel fund in order to pay off bills). And then as time passes, the married couple grow old. They’re still just as in love as they ever were, but now the years are taking their toll. At one point we see the man standing on top of a hill waiting for his wife to make it to the top (in the past, it was her that would bound easily to the crest with him struggling to keep up). And then we see the woman in hospital, and after the husband kisses her, she’s gone and the man is left alone. It’s a heartbreaking beginning.

The economy of the opening sequence is incredibly impressive. The couples’ childhood courtship is full of snappy dialogue, but once we hit their adult years, we just have a montage of moments. And in those moments we see the entire story of their life together. Indeed, it could even make a short film in itself – the adventure that people have together and the heartbreaking end that always looms in the distance; that one person will leave the other alone and bereft. The most upsetting image is that of the old man returning alone to his home without his wife.

The beauty of the story of Up is that Carl, the old man, doesn’t just capitulate. He could quite easily whither away. He could quite easily sell his house to the soulless property developers. But instead he decides to have the adventure that he and his wife always wanted. He attaches thousands of balloons to his house and heads for Paradise Falls.

The image of an old man floating in a house immediately reminded me of the opening to Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. In that film a bunch of elderly office clerks turn their building into a pirate ship and raid other financial institutions. Here the old man’s intention isn’t quite so…violent, but we still have some of the same kind of imagery.

Some of the most beautifully rendered images are ones of the house just floating through the sky. However, at times, the film didn’t really help my vertigo. You see, the old man attracts a castaway – a young scout called Russell. And at one point, we see Russell being lowered out of the floating house on ropes as they go over a large city. The boy points out various sights and then Carl loses his grip on him and the boy plummets. It turns out to be a fantasy on the part of the old man (at the beginning he doesn’t want Russell there) but it did nothing to help me get over my crippling fear of heights.

Once the characters get close to Paradise Falls, the film becomes more traditional. Standing in their way is a bad guy called Charles Muntz (a kind of play on Charles Lindbergh) who wants to get his hands on a rare bird in order to salvage his tattered reputation. And would you believe it, the old man and the boy have befriended the bird and don’t want this madman to capture it.

But the familiar good guy/bad guy beats do nothing to diminish one’s enjoyment of the film. There’s plenty of fun to be had with the villains, especially the talking dogs. You see, Charles Muntz has a pack of dogs that have special collars attached to them – which allow the dogs to speak. Unfortunately though for the alpha male - a huge Doberman - his collar is broken and he speaks in a pathetic, weedy little voice.

I also like how easily distracted the dogs are. Time after time they get distracted when they catch squirrels in their eyeline. They could be having the most menacing conversation and suddenly it’ll be, ‘Squirrel!’

A small throwaway that really made me laugh was when Carl first meets Charles. After being menaced by the dogs, Charles declares Carl is not to be bullied or threatened any longer. The dogs then begin to make a fuss out of the old man. And as they lead him into Charles’ huge blimp for a slap-up meal, one of the dogs says, ‘I like you temporarily.’ It’s a line that is easy to miss but it really made me chuckle.

The meal is also a very funny scene. The dogs make dinner (!) and serve Russell a big hot dog. Great, he thinks. But every time he tries to take a bite a random dog appears out of the background, munching on his grub. All of the dogs are loveable dolts and add to the good-natured spirit of the movie.

The only thing that let the movie down a tiny little bit was the final action sequence. As so often happens in Pixar films, the movie ends with a by the numbers action scene so that the punters can feel like they got their moneys worth. And while it was amusing to see dogs fly planes and then crash when they’re told that squirrels are nearby, it kind of ends up being a generic way in which to end the movie.

Another minor criticism is the 3-D. Some of the film looks great in three dimensions and some of it looks flat. It’s like the filmmakers never really committed to the format. But this won’t be a concern for people who view the film on a regular screen. And the film, with its great story and characters never really needed the gimmick anyway.

Eventually Carl loses his house and sees it disappear through the clouds. But by the end he’s realised that he doesn’t need the house to stay close to his wife. It’s just bricks and mortar. And at the end he also looks through the album that his wife started as a child. In it she wanted to keep pictures of all the adventures she was going to have – adventures she never had. But then the old man sees that his wife has filled the album with pictures from their marriage. Their true adventure was their life together. They didn’t need Paradise Falls.

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  1. Re: that crippling fear of heights -- in the end, it's always Enduring Love that gets me. I'll never set foot in a hot air balloon.