Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Film Review: Up

Pixar have done it again. To a certain extent, this isn't surprising; I've seen all the Pixar films, bar 'Cars', and they've never made a bad film. Even their off days (to my mind, 'A Bug's Life' and 'Monsters Inc.') are better than most of the stuff Hollywood churns out. Many people seem to feel roughly the same - Pixar are collective geniuses, and just get better with with each film they make.

However, I have to admit that I didn't feel as enthused about 'Up' as I had about, say, 'WALL:E' (and having seen the trailer, I'm already excited about 'Toy Story 3'!). This is probably largely to do with not having seen any trailers for it, but I love Pixar, and I'd normally seek out the trailers if I wasn't exposed to them anyway. 'Up' didn't inspire me to do that. I think it's something to do with the concept. It's easily the wackiest one in the Pixar ouvre, with the possible exception of 'Ratatouille'. Yes, they've had crazy superhero films, films about talking cars, an ant colony, and a largely wordless film about the relationship between two robots - but those all made sense within the universe of the film. 'Up' is ostensibly set in the 'real' world, but features a 78 year old man pulling a house around on his back with his garden hose, on a quest to get to the jungle. In addition, the two main characters are a grumpy old man and a kid, who slowly develop a (grand)father/son relationship. It's a tad formulaic.

Formulaic but wonderful. The first twenty minutes or so are some of the finest Pixar have done, a lovingly done montage sequence showing Carl (our hero) meeting the love of his life, Ellie, and their relationship through marriage, getting their dream house, infertility/miscarriage [it is all silent, and thus unclear what is happening at this point] and, eventually, Ellie's death. It's a kids cartoon... With a twenty minute montage about life, love and death, that didn't quite reduce me to tears, but definitely left a lump in my throat.

The montage is probably the high point of the film, although not necessarily the most memorable (that honour goes to the dogs. I'm saying nothing else...) From this point, 'Up' takes a more fantastical approach, with Carl floating his house away on hundreds of helium balloons. He wishes to fulfil Ellie's lifelong dream of moving to Paradise Falls, a jungle - well, paradise. Unfortunately, a young boy named Russell, desperate to get his 'Assisting the Elderly' scout badge, has stowed away on the porch, and they're a long way from home... The rest of the film takes in a colourful exotic bird (the Roadrunner on acid), the aforementioned dogs, zeppelins, and a character study of the grieving process, mixed in with a brief meditation on the relationship between children and their fathers.

This half of the film is easily the funniest, there not being much scope for jokes in the aforementioned silent montage (although make no mistake, you will laugh at it). However, it is also the weakest half - although I say that on the same basis as I label 'Monsters Inc' a weaker Pixar offering; it's still far, far better than many other films. But it doesn't have the same emotional impact, or storytelling quality, as the scenes leading up to Ellie's death. At the risk of sounding pretentious, it becomes a bit safer, replacing the daring scenes with a rather traditional story arc, and relying on slapstick and funny voices for much of the humour. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Like I said, it's Pixar. The humour might be traditional, but I was laughing loudly throughout, and that's all that really matters. The tale might be simple, but it is well written, acted and told, so who cares? There's no point in having a clever plot if you can't tell it right, and that's Pixar's main quality. They may get lauded for audacious stories and the quality of their animation, but they tell stories that pack an emotional punch, and they do it well. The superb animation and inventive worlds are just icing on the cake.

I feel like I've been a bit down on 'Up' (sorry...), but it really is a wonderful film. But if I commented on all the good stuff, then I'd spoil the film for you. And never actually finish writing the review, of course. I have the same problem with Discworld books. There are only so many ways that you can say it's a wonderful book. It's easier and quicker to say what you don't like. And when all you can really say negatively is that 'Up' isn't quite as ambitious as it could have been, I think that's something for Pixar to be proud of. Ultimately, I laughed so hard it hurt at a lot of it, and in moments I was almost crying.

Five stars, pure and simple. One of the best films of the year.

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