Saturday, 24 October 2009
James Bower reviews UP for Nutshell
USA, 2009, Cert U Dir. Pete Docter, Bob Peterson
96 mins. Cast: Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer
Up is a masterpiece.
Not only that, but Up succeeds against the odds. Conceptually it’s Pixar’s weakest offering yet: It’s not about monsters, or robots, or toys. It’s about Carl Fredericksen. Carl is 78 years old with a walking frame and a house full of faded memories, primarily of his beloved wife Ellie. Ellie just died, and her loss is something that you’ll feel for the duration of the film. This is thanks to one of the greatest opening montages I have ever seen, animated or otherwise. Critics have been swooning over this one for weeks, and it’s my turn to join them. It’s the condensed life story of Carl and Ellie, from their first meeting as kids drunk on tales of ‘adventure’ to a closing image of old Carl sitting alone by a table of condolence messages. It’s the most affecting 20 minutes I’ve seen this year.
If you’ve seen a poster for Up, you know the story. Using hundreds of coloured balloons, Carl floats away in his sad little house (hey, it’s better than the Shady Oaks retirement village). But Up is not about a floating house. It’s about Carl. Carl clings to his house like a drowning man to a rock. He needs his stuff, and he has a lot of it. Photographs, scrapbooks, ornaments, furniture - it’s a chintzy museum dedicated to a life that ended when Ellie died. And he’s terrified of letting go. When Carl realises that the two of them never achieved their shared dream of adventuring in South America (his life in montage is full of mundane joys, but none of them involve what he considers to be ‘adventure’), he finds a way to get there without leaving his fully-furnished mausoleum. Did I mention that Carl is a balloon salesman?
The storytelling in Up is nothing short of masterful. Carl is painted so lovingly and with such clarity that it’s impossible not to feel for the cranky old coot. Ed Asner’s voice work is just perfect, right down to the irritated little grunts that make up half of his vocabulary. Despite himself, Carl charms not only the audience but also Russell (Jordan Nagai), a wide-eyed, slow-witted boy scout who happens to be on Carl’s porch when the house lifts off. Russell is part of a small supporting cast that also boasts a talking dog and an LSD-flavoured flamingo straight out of a Tex Avery cartoon.
At once crushingly sad and outrageously funny, Up’s laughs range from classic slapstick to a sublime musical montage set to Bizet (the whole score is first rate). One thing Up lacks is ‘zingy’ dialogue. Thank Christ! Am I the only one who’s sick to death of smart-ass zebras and neurotic penguins? Up’s delicate, honest humour is part of its irresistible charm. Equally satisfying are the action sequences, perfectly paced and choreographed and a thousand times more gripping than the cgi brain damage of the summer’s top action flicks. A briefly-glimpsed thunderstorm into which Carl and Russell accidentally drift might even out-rumble the whirling ocean maelstrom of Miyazaki’s Ponyo.
Up is visual poetry. It speaks on many different levels woven into an outstandingly complete cinematic experience. Most of Carl’s life whizzes by us in a few minutes, but you can feel the passing years as though you’re there with him, and that’s what gives the rest of the movie such a wonderful weight and texture. Carl’s hermit crab-like dependency on his house is never telegraphed; it’s just there, plain as the big round nose on his face. Russell isn’t just bumbling comic relief; he’s a real kid, and he has a sad story of his own that he can barely articulate. But Up can.
See Up as soon as possible, as many times as you can. Whimsical but not saccharine, tight but not contrived, it’s smart, it’s funny and it’s beautiful. It’s also strikingly mature. This is a kids’ movie, but not one in which everyone’s dreams come true. It’s one founded in disappointment and regret, but which then lifts this sadness into a glorious statement about the malleability of dreams. There are new ones out there that Carl just didn’t know about yet. You can tell when a film has been made with love; Up is such a film.
- James Bower