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COMMENTARY

Up

Hot Air

Up, Pixar's tenth feature and its second directed by Pete Docter, has as its protagonist an elderly man named Carl Fredricksen. Carl is seventy-eight years old, according to the Disney web site, although I don't recall so specific an age being mentioned in the film itself. He is lonely and depressed after the death of his wife of many years. He is so infirm that he walks with the aid of a three-pronged cane, and he rides an elevator seat up and down the staircase in his dilapidated house.

Up asks us to believe that a man so physically and emotionally crippled could, overnight, rig his home with enough helium-filled balloons to yank it off its foundations, and then sail his flying house off toward a magnificent South American waterfall. That's asking a lot.

I don't think it will quite do to say that Up is, after all, a fantasy, and a fantastic premise is thus a given. Up requires far more than a single willing suspension of disbelief. It piles on the implausibilities, giving us a Carl who needs a cane to walk but can scramble around the exterior of an in-flight zeppelin as nimbly as a young monkey, and a villain, Charles F. Muntz—his name a double joke that recalls both Charles Mintz, Walt Disney's nemesis in the 1920s, and Madman Muntz, a notorious used-car dealer on early television—who has somehow managed to live well past the age of one hundred in the South American jungle with only dogs for company, and who is at least as frisky as Carl. (When Carl and Muntz fight hand-to-hand, there is a pause for a bad-back gag that makes the old men's athleticism seem that much more phony.)

Up is, I'm afraid, a pretty silly movie; but it's a silly movie that has been greeted warmly and taken seriously by hard-to-please critics like David Denby of The New Yorker, and, of course, by millions of moviegoers. One reason for that is probably the sheer virtuosity now on display in most movies that rely heavily on CGI but especially impressive in Pixar's: what we see may be ridiculous, as with almost everything that happens aboard the zeppelin, but because we can see it, dismissing it out of hand is all but impossible. Moreover, what we see is often quite wonderful on its own terms. I don't think Pixar's character animation has improved much over the years, but what would have been called effects animation in the old days is often astonishing. Even though I could never believe in Carl—who not only does impossible things but is also just too crude and blocky looking—I could certainly believe in his flying house and in the meticulously imagined landscapes beneath it.

The larger reason for the broad enthusiasm for Up seems to be that critics and audiences alike have accepted the film's implicit claim to emotional weight. Carl takes off in his flying house not on a whim and not just to escape his tormenters—construction workers, judges, the condescending attendants from a "retirement home"—but to fulfill a dream that he and his dead wife shared for seventy years. The film opens with scenes of their meeting as children, letting us know right away that even as a boy Carl was enchanted by his ball-of-fire wife-to-be, Ellie, and then continues with an artful four-minute montage of their married life together and the disappointments they shared: they can't have children, their travel plans are derailed repeatedly by other needs for money, and finally, just when Carl has bought their tickets to Venezuela, Ellie collapses, and soon dies.

I would never claim to be immune to a filmmaker's efforts to manipulate my emotions, especially where a long-term marriage is concerned—I have been married to the same woman for almost forty years—but this montage looked to me like the stuff of sticky old Bette Davis movies. I resented that it was placed at the beginning of the film, almost as if to say that my response to the montage would determine whether I was worthy to watch what came after. Reviews and blog comments have dwelled at length on the tears and sobs that Up inspires in its audiences, as if weeping were evidence of the film's merits, but I didn't think that Up earned my tears, and I didn't shed any.

The veteran Pixar directors John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton were Up's executive producers. In its toxic sentimentality, Up has much more in common with Lasseter's Cars and Stanton's Finding Nemo and WALL•E than Pete Docter's first Pixar feature, Monsters, Inc.(2001). There is in Monsters genuine feeling of the sort that is lacking in Up. The hairy monster Sully's attachment to the tiny girl Boo grows slowly and naturally over the course of the earlier film, until, against all odds, they're reunited at the very end. There's nothing remotely compulsory about the emotions a viewer might feel at that reunion, but I've certainly responded strongly whenever I've seen it.

There's no "backstory" for Boo in Monsters; there's scarcely a hint of what her family life might be like. All we have is the child herself, and I have always found her to be, by the end of the film, remarkably real. In Up, backstory is laid on with a trowel, not only for Carl but for Russell, the Asian-American boy who becomes an unwitting hitchhiker on Carl's floating house and whose fractured home life is the subject of long dry stretches of conversation. There is, by contrast, too little backstory for Charles Muntz, and so the bizarre accoutrements of his life in the jungle—talking dogs, the antique but perfectly preserved zeppelin that houses his personal museum—seem disconnected from the story the film starts out to tell.

The cast of Monsters, Inc., is odd-looking, naturally, but the cast of Up is actually much stranger. It is made up of monomaniacs: not just Muntz, in his mad quest for the huge flightless bird called "Kevin," which he somehow hasn't managed to capture in seventy years (although Carl can't get rid of it), but also Carl and Ellie, in their mad dream of a home perched above Paradise Falls, and even Russell, in his obsessive quest for one last Wilderness Explorers merit badge. Crazy people can make wonderful protagonists in short cartoons (see Coyote, Wile E.), but they become tiresome companions over the length of a feature, and so it is with Up.

Docter's Monsters, Inc. is vastly superior to Up, and is, for my money, the best Pixar feature apart from Brad Bird's two, but it is a film whose virtues, though real, are limited. Thanks to its thin premise—that children's screams are the monster city's equivalent of fossil fuel—it insists on being defined as a kid flick. When its villains try to subject Boo to a nasty-looking "scream extractor," that's an unfortunate lapse—an attempt to give a lightweight story more narrative bulk, perhaps—but it's far from fatal, and Monsters, Inc. emerges finally as a straightforward, well-told children's film, a classic of its kind. Up could have been the same, and it's too bad that it turned into a sanctimonious mess instead.

Up in 3D: I expected that the airborne scenes in Up would benefit most from 3D, but, to my surprise, I didn't experience a much greater sense of depth than with the flat version. For the first time, though, I was aware of, and a little annoyed by, the color differences between 2D and 3D versions, the inevitable dimming of the image that comes with 3D. I assume that my color awareness was related to the film's rather prim avoidance of conspicuous 3D effects. When 3D was most present, I almost wished it weren't, as in some of the vertiginous scenes near the end. I didn't really need a stronger sense of depth when Charles Muntz was hurtling down to his (presumed) death. But then I have a great fear of heights.

Otherwise, I came away thinking that the review I posted last week pretty much said what I wanted to say. The movie seemed to me even more emotionally manipulative than I first thought (how many times does Carl murmur "Ellie," how many times does he cross his heart?), and even more preposterous (Carl really does assemble all those balloons and rig his house for flight in just a few hours; there's not a hint that he has been working for days to prepare for this moment). "Up, a silly movie with heart"—that's a slogan the Disney marketers somehow failed to come up with, maybe because even they realized it's oxymoronic, however accurate it might be.

The sad thing is, there's a good movie lurking in Up, one that's most visible in the magical scenes of Carl's house floating serenely above cities and farms. A really good children's movie, probably, like Pete Docter's Monsters, Inc. So many elements of Up could have been part of that unmade good movie—Carl could have been a widower, he could have had a child companion, and on and on. There might even have been some way to incorporate a talking dog, and perhaps Charles Muntz could have been part of the story, too, less as a villain than as a fascinating eccentric. (To return to the actual film's peculiarities, what exactly is so unspeakably dreadful about Muntz's desire to capture Kevin—alive, remember—and use the living bird to prove that he has been a victim of injustice for seventy years?) It's a shame that a modest, likable film wasn't made, and we got Up instead.

[Posted June 2, 2009; 3D update posted June 13, 2009]

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