Disney // 2009 // 96 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // November 10th, 2009
Sometimes life's biggest adventures aren't the ones you set out looking for.
"Don't you worry, Ellie. We'll get our house over there."
Another year, yet another critical and commercial hit from the fine folks at Pixar. The latest is Up, the story of an old man who attaches balloons to his house and sails away to South America with only a young boy scout as his companion. Does the film live up to all the hype? You bet it does. Is the Blu-ray release one of the year's best? Without a doubt.
Our film opens in the 1930s, with a young boy named Carl (Jeremy Leary) soaking in the crackly joys of a theatrical newsreel. The theatre announcer breathlessly recounts the trials and tribulations of adventurer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer, The Sound of Music), a man who claimed to have encountered all kinds of magnificent mythical things in the strange world of Paradise Falls, South America. Alas, so-called "experts" come to believe that Muntz has fabricated the entire thing. Muntz responds to this with anger, vowing that he will go back to Paradise Falls and refuse to return until he has found irrefutable proof of his claims. He never comes back. Meanwhile, Carl dreams of becoming an explorer. He boldly leaps over cracks in the sidewalk (the Grand Canyon) and attempts to make his way over intimidating stumps (Mount Everest), all the while carrying a simple blue balloon marked "The Spirit of Adventure" (after Muntz's magnificent airship).
One day, Carl meets Ellie (Elie Docter), a vibrant and enthusiastic young girl with equally grand dreams of someday traveling to Paradise Falls. The two make a connection with each other, and become best friends. Carl vows that he will someday take Ellie to Paradise Falls, where they will have a grand adventure together. Fast forward a decade or so. Carl (now voiced by Ed Asner, Elf) and Ellie get married. Their lengthy marriage is portrayed in a wordless animated sequence that is nothing short of masterful. The joys and sorrows of life are portrayed in a manner that cannot be captured by words. The sequence is immensely moving. It effectively shames the animated films of most other studios, which use wacky voices and tedious pop-culture references to try to connect to viewers in a thoroughly superficial way. The silent montage in Up is the best thing about the film (in fact, it's one of the best scenes I've ever seen in an animated film), but what follows is a very worthy adventure that is quietly fueled by the emotional strength of the early moments.
Oh, what an adventure this film has to offer. What a grand and imaginative story. I am grateful that the film actually made it past the storyboard stage, because this is certainly no conventional family movie. The film slyly does what it can to make unsuspecting audiences comfortable with the fact that they are witnessing something breathtakingly new and original. There is a moment in which Carl somewhat thoughtlessly assaults a man with his walker. Some may initially be inclined giggle. After all, people hit other people in cartoons all the time with no consequences whatsoever. Here, that is not the case. The assaulted man's forehead begins to bleed and a look of fear comes across his face. Carl quickly retreats inside, nervously peeking out the window to examine the aftermath of his actions. The next morning, men come to take Carl away. Carl responds by taking desperate measures...allowing a massive bunch of balloons to pick his house up off the ground and carry him away. He will fly to Paradise Falls in the comfort of his living room. It does not seem like the action of a wild eccentric who doesn't recognize the potential consequences, but the action a broken old man who doesn't care about the consequences. If he doesn't survive, it's not like he's going to leave anyone behind.
The stakes are raised when Carl hears a knock outside his door. It is peculiar, considering that not too many people knock on his door to begin with, much less when his house is hundreds of feet above the ground. He finds a fearful boy scout clinging to his front porch. The boy appears to be Asian-American, though I can't be entirely sure. It doesn't really matter, but I bring it up because the young boy and the old man have an exchange the quickly summarizes the relationship between the Asian-American boy and the cantankerous old white man in Gran Torino.
"Can I come in?"
"No...Oh, all right."
This relationship is one of the few things in the film that helps the audience feel comfortable with the outlandish story. The prickly dynamic between the two seems somehow familiar, if not from other movies then from real-life encounters many of us have had with our elders. Who among us does not have a cranky old relative whose generally kind heart is sometimes covered by a gruff personality? There are other familiar elements, including a villain (Muntz), though he is roughly 100 years old and the motivations for his villainy are not typical. In fact, there is an element of madness to his actions that is perhaps appropriately left unacknowledged. Is Muntz really any madder than Carl? Then there are the cute animal sidekicks. These also seem familiar, and yet also new and fresh. The adorable Doug the Dog (Bob Petersen, Monsters, Inc.) is equipped with a collar that allows him to express his thoughts in a manner humans can understand, which leads to several immensely amusing moments. "Oh please, won't you be my prisoner?" he pleads with a giant bird.
I would not be one bit surprised if director Pete Docter found some inspiration in the films of Werner Herzog. Carl's quest is somehow very similar to the one portrayed in Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, a film about a man determined to drag a boat over a mountain in South America. Here, Carl and his young companion arrive in South America, attach themselves to the floating home and attempt to physically pull it to the other side of a massive canyon. Have you ever seen the documentary Burden of Dreams? It chronicles Herzog's attempt to make Fitzcarraldo. He was determined to actually pull the entire boat over the mountain (something even his real-life inspiration had not even been able to do; that man disassembled the boat into several parts before hauling it over). Many thought Herzog mad. When questioned about his seemingly absurd actions, the colorful director replied, "Without dreams we would be cows in a field, and I don't want to live like that. I live my life or I end my life with this project." So it is with Carl. He has been a sensible man for most of his life, but now the time for sensibility has come to a close. He has a mad dream fueled by deep passions, and it will either be fulfilled or crushed. Whatever happens will happen as a result of spectacular ambition. And then, later, there is a moment in which Carl finds a scrapbook, and what he sees elegantly and powerfully hammers home the point Docter has been quietly circling the entire film. It's a lovely moment that reminds us, once again, of just why Pixar is perhaps the world's most highly-regarded film studio.
Frankly, I expected Up to look nothing short of jaw-droppingly beautiful in high-def, and I am pleased to report that this disc stands next to Wall-E as a standard-setting animated release. Moreso than any other animation studio, Pixar has generally filled their films with loads of rich visual nuance and detail that one starts to notice after repeat viewings. I spotted all kinds of little visual elements I missed when the film was in theatres, and watching the disc really gives the viewer an appreciation for the great work the animators have done. Just look at the stubble that slowly starts to appear on Carl's face as the film progresses, or the detailed handwriting seen on Carl's subpoena. Up is perhaps Pixar's most vibrantly colorful film to date, and the image really pops of the screen on Blu-ray. Any scene featuring the strikingly colorful bird is a particularly strong example of this. The level of detail is simply jaw-dropping (you can see every single hair on Dug's body), and this is a film that certainly takes advantage of the entire screen quite a bit. There are also a number of darker scenes in the film, and I was rather wowed by the level of clarity and shading during these moments. This movie looks flawless.
The same level of excellence can be found in the lossless audio track, which provides the viewer with a truly immersive listening experience. This is one of the strongest surround mixes I've heard, constantly keeping all of my speakers busy and giving the subwoofer a considerable workout. The action sequences impress as much as you expect them to, but what's remarkable is just how richly detailed the quieter moments in the film are. There are loads of subtleties to be found in the audio, from the gentle creakings of the house to the varying levels of wind in the jungle. Man, this track is terrific. I also have to give very high praise to the score by Michael Giacchino, which sports the most emotionally involving main theme of any 2009 release. He carries that wordless sequence with such masterful tenderness and warmth, stirring our hearts without going over the line into tediously saccharine territory (oddly enough, the scores that pour on the syrup the thickest are generally those that move me the least). It's a beautiful and lilting theme that works its way through the film in a variety of compelling ways. Not to discount the rest of the score, mind you. Giacchino's more ordinary Mickey-Mousey is top-notch professional writing, but that theme is nothing short of sublime.
This 4-disc set is blessed with a generous supplemental package, though perhaps slightly less generous than you might suspect given that this is a four-disc set (I find discs three and four pretty superfluous, honestly). Let's dig in:
"Cinexplore with Pete Docter and Bob Petersen": This superb picture-in-picture commentary track is a masterfully produced piece, offered not only engaging and insightful commentary that never gets dry or dull, but also supplying loads of interesting artwork and stills appropriate to whatever the guys are talking about or whatever is happening on-screen. While it's oh-so-slightly disappointing that we only get one of these tracks this time around (Wall-E had two), this is nothing short of superb.
"Partly Cloudy" (6 minutes): This short film was shown in theatres in front of Up, and it's perhaps my favorite of all the Pixar short films. "Partly Cloudy" is an absolutely adorable variation on the whole "storks deliver babies" concept that is both immensely funny and very touching. This is a must-watch.
"Dug's Special Mission" (5 minutes): A brand-new short film that connects directly to Up. Dug is given a variety of thankless assignments by his fellow dogs, none of which turns out exactly as anyone thinks it will. It's lightweight fun that connect directly to the film, taking us up to the point where Dug meets Carl and Russell. Honestly though, it plays more like a completed deleted scene than an original short film.
"Adventure is Out There" (22 minutes): This interesting piece follows the filmmakers as they travel to South America to get a look at the area they were going to be incorporating into the film. I'm impressed that they would go to such effort, and it's striking to see live-action footage of these locations after seeing the same locations in an animated film.
Alternate Scene -- The Many Endings of Muntz (5 minutes): The filmmakers apparently had some difficulty figuring out how to kill the villainous Muntz during the third act, and this piece offers a look at some of the rejected ideas. It's interesting to note just how little Docter seems to like the villain, wanting to avoid giving him too much screen time and get around to dispatching him pretty quickly.
"The Egg" (2 minutes): This is a cool Easter egg found on the DVD offering a discussion of a deleted concept involving a magical egg. To access it, just click the left arrow on your remote control while you're on the main menu screen of this disc.
The second disc is devoted exclusively to bonus features. While it's not exactly as jam-packed with stuff as you might expect it to be (the whole disc runs about an hour), the material included here is high-quality.
"Geriatric Hero" (6 minutes): Docter and others talk about the challenges of creating a film featuring a worn-out older protagonist in an era that screams for youth and energy. However, there's a good point made about how much more expressive and nuanced the face of an older person is as opposed to the fresh-faced smoothness of a younger character. The animators also visited nursing homes to examine the ways elderly people moved.
"Canine Companions" (8 minutes): As you might expect, this piece focuses on the creation of the dogs in the film. There's some discussion about attempting to read what dogs are thinking by examining their body language. The filmmakers also chose to contrast Carl and Muntz by focusing on the way they regard a human's relationship with a dog (Carl regards Dug as a friend, Muntz regards his dogs as servants).
"Russell -- Wilderness Explorer" (9 minutes): This piece talks about the lengthy creation of Russell's character. Interestingly enough, the character eventually wound up looking a great deal like one of the animators. There's also some magical behind-the-scenes footage in which Docter slowly but surely draws a strong performance of the young voice actor. I also love the hand-drawn storyboards shown during these pieces. They have a lovely Bill Peet-like quality.
"Our Giant Flightless Friend, Kevin" (5 minutes): A quick look at the creation of the film's colorful bird. Interestingly enough, the ostrich-riding scene in The Swiss Family Robinson was the initial inspiration for the creature's inclusion.
"Homemakers of Pixar" (5 minutes): A look at designing and constructing a computer-animated house that suited Carl's personality and the film's aesthetic. I enjoyed getting to look at the little models that were put together as references for the animators.
"Balloons and Flight" (6 minutes): This piece offers a look at difficulty the filmmakers had in trying to find a way to make the fact that balloons were carrying a house feel at least somewhat believable and convincing from a purely physical perspective. There's also some discussion of Muntz's blimp.
"Composing for Characters" (7 minutes): Composer Michael Giacchino steps into the spotlight and talks about creating themes for the film. Being a film music junkie, it's no surprise that this was my favorite of the featurettes. Giacchino suggests that the main theme is actually a theme for Ellie, representing her spirit carrying through the film despite the fact that she is not physically there. There's also some cool footage of the recording sessions, naturally.
Alternate Scene -- Married Life (9 minutes): An exploration of the film's most powerful sequence and the manner in which it evolved. You get a also chance to see an entirely different version of the scene via storyboards. You really ought to check this out, because some of the deleted moments are just lovely (even in storyboard form).
Up Promo Montage (6 minutes): These somewhat minimally-animated sequences were created to provide a good idea of what the characters were like, and they're fun if fairly inconsequential.
Global Guardian Badge Game: An interactive game with an emphasis on geography. As these things go, this one's actually kinda nifty.
Trailers: Two theatrical trailers.
This disc is merely a DVD copy of the film. I'm actually okay with this, as it allows viewers contemplating an eventual upgrade to Blu-ray to go ahead and pick up this set without having to wait to watch the movie.
This disc is a digital copy of the film. I continue to find such things pointless. While there's nothing technically wrong with having a DVD and Digital copy as bonuses, the fact that this is a 4-disc set causes the retail price to be a considerably high $45.99 (though of course it can be purchased for just over $30 from Amazon).
There's really nothing I actually dislike about this film, but I do think Up could have done with one or two less wild comedy sequences (specifically those involving the birds and/or the dogs). This stuff isn't bad by any means, just a tad mundane in contrast to the heartfelt originality the film generally demonstrates.
A great film gets a terrific Blu-ray release. Buy this without hesitation.
Not guilty. Up, up and away!
Review content copyright © 2009 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Cine-Explore Commentary
* Alternate Scenes
* Short Films
* Interactive Game
* Digital Copy
* DVD Copy
* Cinema Verdict Review