You know how the saying goes: “When you hit bottom, the only place it go is up”. Pixar’s latest adventure takes that philosophy and sends it soaring to fantastical heights. Not that many people care all that much about philosophy or values when it comes to this kind of animated flick. Most audiences just want beautiful animation teamed with humorous entertainment. As usual, the folks at Pixar deliver, above and beyond. Carl Fredricksen (voiced by the classic grouchy old man, Ed Asner) is an explorer at heart, but as an aging widower facing eviction from his home and a lifetime full of unfulfilled promises, the wind has been knocked out of his sails. We first meet him and the love of his life, Ellie, when the two are only children playing at world-adventurer. The two promise that they’ll travel together to the wild depths of unexplored South America, but as it so often does, real life gets in the way.
As Carl and Ellie go from children to elderly, the master artists behind the film deftly pack the joys and sorrows, happiness and heartbreak of 70 years of marriage into a beautiful, wordless, five minutes. Too moving to be called a montage, the compressed lifetime of the couple sets us up to understand how miserable and lost Carl is without Ellie, as well as how disappointed he is that he never kept his promise to take her on their South American adventure. When he faces losing their beloved home and a forced movie into a retirement facility, he realizes that he truly has hit bottom, and that he has only one place left to go.
Despite the realistic grounding that writing/directing team Pete Docter and Rob Peterson give their grouchy old hero at the start of the story, they move on quickly to unleash Carl’s inner adventurer, along with any grasp on realism for the rest of the film. And thank goodness: who wants to watch an animated movie tied to the mundane rules of the real world? Carl’s answer to avoid losing his home, and to keep his promise to Ellie, is to tie thousands of brightly colored helium balloons to his fireplace grate and sail the entire house to the exotic Paradise Falls in South America.
Mid-flight, Carl’s peaceful floating escape is interrupted by an impossible knock at the door. Overeager Russell (voiced by newcomer Jordan Nagai), a young misfit Wilderness Explorer desperate to earn his “helping the elderly” badge, has unwittingly stowed away and thrown an unwelcome kink in Carl’s plan. The two characters are the perfect odd couple, right down to their completely opposite animated designs. The pairing offers up plenty of comedy, but like Carl, Russell is also in a low spot in his young life. The movie ultimately finds its classic Pixar depth and warmth in their mismatched situation and misguided attempts to get each other headed upwards in life.
Roll in a host of entertaining surrounding personalities like Dug the talking dog, aged world explorer gone bad Charles Muntz, and a giant flightless exotic mother bird named Kevin, and the movie is never at a loss for comic bits able to delight an audience of any age. In true Pixar form, the storytellers have given tremendous thought to every character and every element. In the moments when you aren’t laughing out loud or fighting back a tear, you’re guaranteed to have a smile on your face.
The last few Pixar films have aimed for richness of realistic detail, from a painstaking re-creation of Paris, France in Ratatouille to an almost photo-realistic rendering of a world trashed and abandoned in Wall-E. Up sticks to a simpler, stylized design, focusing on bright colors and interesting shapes. It’s a refreshing vision during a time when many 3D animated movies are so focused on realism that their stories fall flat, missing the real-world forest for the CGI trees.
Whatever small things may be left wanting in the storytelling and design of the film is filled in by Michael Giacchino’s beautiful score. Always a master of both musical superlatives and subtleties, Giacchino conveys the story in places where the film realizes words just aren’t enough.
After 10 incredibly successful movies, some people have grown weary of praising Pixar’s genius. I couldn’t disagree more. For every Hoodwinked or Barnyard that sends a movie-goer’s heart into defibrillation, we need something like Up to send a refreshing jolt, and to help us remember how phenomenal animated storytelling can be. A movie like Up is a fantastic reason to get into Blu-ray if you haven’t already. The switch-over may not be worth it if you don’t yet have a TV capable of handling high-def in all its glory, but if you do then it’s time to leave DVD behind. Up is a film whose design is all about color, shape, and motion. The Blu-ray high-definition quality of the movie captures the brilliance, crispness, and all-important subtlety of all three in a way that is critical to enjoying the total artistry of the geniuses at Pixar.
Of course, regardless of how you watch your movies these days, Pixar’s distributing partner Disney wouldn’t want anyone to be left behind. So, the movie’s four-disc package comes complete with the movie in Blu-ray format (discs one and two) , DVD format (disc three), and a digital copy for your portable devices (disc 4). Horribly redundant? Absolutely. A waste of room on my movie shelf? Completely. But since the price for Disney’s multi-format fetishism isn’t any higher than a normal release, it’s kind of pointless to complain.
But let the DVD watcher beware. There are two Blu-ray discs in this package, and only one DVD disc. In this case, fewer discs means fewer bonus features. Both the DVD and Blu-ray have the directors’ commentary, the original Pixar short Partly Cloudy, a new and entertaining short feature Dug’s Special Mission, and a couple making-of featurettes -- Adventure is Out There and The Many Endings of Muntz. But that’s where the similarities end. If you want all the extras on DVD, you're out of luck.
The second Blu-ray disc includes about an hour of additional making-of features covering a whole range of topics, including Geriatric Hero, an exploration of Carl’s development, Canine Companions, a fun look at how the animators worked to create the movie’s dozens of dogs, and Composing for Characters, a brief look at Giacchino’s work scoring the film. Also included on the second disc is an exploration of an early alternate version of the movie’s keynote scene, “Married Life,” and a fun montage of animated bits developed exclusively for promotional purposes.
Another fun feature on the second Blu-ray disc is a rather involved geography game entitled “Global Guardian Badge Game.” If you have a computer with a Blu-ray drive you’ll find this diversion more entertaining, as playing requires fine positioning of the cursor, something rough to accomplish with clunky remote buttons. But if that’s all you have, it’s still worth playing just to see how well you really know the capitols of the U.S. or the nations of South America. A good brush up if you’re worried about running into Jay Leno on the street anytime soon.
Listening to the directors’ commentary is worth it if you can get time to watch it without younger kids nearby (apparently old people talking over the characters is VERY annoying). Hopefully you don’t mind seeing images and video snippets popping up in the screen corners as well. While the DVD version is the straight commentary, the Blu-ray only offers the commentary in Cine-Explore format, which is short for “while-listening-to-us-you-have-to-look-at-our-visual-aids-too-ha-ha-ha." I could care less about most of the pop-up stuff, but in the Blu-ray there’s just no way to turn it off.
The only other complaint I have about the package, apart from the fact that there are no rendering bloopers (which should be a staple for any CG animated movie release in my humble opinion) is the small amount of behind-the-scenes material. I remember seeing all kinds of cool things during the movie’s pre-production and pre-release dates, everything from development sketches to art layouts. But none of that is featured, and too little time is offered to the design team to talk about what was obviously a very rich creative experience. I suppose Disney has to save something for the Ultimate Platinum Century Vault Collector’s Edition, but it’s really no excuse. I know how much stuff fits on a Blu-ray disc and there’s a LOT of room left on these two.