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Starring: Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer, Bob Peterson

Directed by: Pete Docter, Bob Peterson

Produced by: Jonas Rivera

Written by: Pete Docter & Bob Peterson (screenplay & story), Thomas McCarthy (story)

Distributor: Buena Vista Pictures

     Why is it that Pixar gets a pass when they make a formulaic movie, and no other studio does? Reading the reviews for Up, an utterly conventional film despite its complex appearance, I’m shocked that the company has established itself as such a giant that few critics are willing to question its excellence. When has a purported gold-standard been this uniformly accepted?

     Oh, yes, there are many features that distinguish Up from its more routine animated counterparts, but I would argue that they don’t amount to substantive story or emotions. Granted, they make Up an intermittently entertaining, inventive, and even dazzling movie – just not one that’s easy to become invested in. Pixar should indeed be commended for conceiving an elderly protagonist, so rarely seen in the modern media. And, yes, their film looks incredible, especially in the inciting scene in which balloons burst out of the house and allow it to fly high in the sky. Not to mention, I never expected to see animated characters soar to a remote, high-altitude South American paradise in a non-Miyazaki film. But Up also has dogs that can talk to humans and a sickening sense of sentimentality, among other tedious animated conventions.

     Carl Fredrickson (voiced by Ed Asner) is a 78-year-old man who has been grumpy since his wife Ellie, who he knew since childhood, died. In the film’s opening sequence, we watch them share life together in an extended montage that’s borderline nauseating because it’s manipulative and full of itself. I use the latter term because Pixar implements the passages as if to directly play to those eager to praise them by depicting such realities as infertility and sickness. These aren’t real emotions – they’re syrupily-constructed ploys to get people to believe greatness is at work. The movie transcends self-awareness and reaches a point at which one wonders if writer/directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson made it with only one concern: how it would fit into Pixar’s prized oeuvre.

     After the bad opening, Up hits its stride for about a half an hour. For ages, Carl and Ellie dreamt of a special trip they would take to Paradise Falls, a remote Venezuelan tropic where the iconic 1930s news-reel explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) discovered an exotic bird but was shunned by the popular-press because some said he rigged the fossil. Carl finally decides to escape to Paradise Falls when he’s sentenced to a nursing home after hitting a construction worker with his cane… by attaching thousands of helium balloons to his home. Little does he know, young cub-scout Russell (Jordan Nagai), who’s desperate to assist him in order to secure a merit badge, has been hanging from the porch the entire time. A buddy comedy dynamic ensues, and Carl slowly but surely comes to like the boy who once irritated him.

     When Up is at its best, truly whimsical and not overly manipulative, it becomes easy to embrace the characters and marvel at the film’s gorgeous technical accomplishments. Certain passages of Up defy the rest and, suddenly, Carl and Russell actually develop intrinsically, as they should. Unfortunately, these passages do not make up the bulk—or even half—of the movie. This is really the key distinction between the majority of Pixar project and those of its frequent (undeserved) comparison, animation master Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli: Pixar still sees a need to overindulge character foils and transformations as if to make sure kid audiences understand them, whereas Ghibli realizes this isn’t necessary. In fact, the best picture the American company has ever made (Ratatouille) recognized the fact. But Up does not. The moments in which Russell confides in an enlightened Carl his family problems, for instance, are as insufferably overcooked as they are obligatory.

     But overextended emotionalism, a common flaw in American animation, is only half of the problem with Up. The picture’s other big downfall is the farcical nature of its final 50 minutes. While there is still the occasional quietly reflective moment, which will probably go unnoticed by the masses, Docter and Peterson toss in everything but the kitchen sink. There’s a deceptive, mad-scientist-like villain; the aforementioned dogs who can speak to humans, thanks to the most pathetic excuse for talking dogs in a movie yet; and lots of clunky action sequences. None of this is interesting, and much of it verges on annoying. In the process, the souls of the main characters are lost, and previously insignificant things like Russell’s spit-filled baby-talk become grating.

     The movie is the latest entry in the snowballing 3D movement, and it marks perhaps the most unnecessary implementation of the technology to date. One would think that Pixar would have done more with the gimmick given how much altitude and dimension matter to the story, as per Coraline, but the 3D is only used to provide subtle background-foreground distinctions. Hence, its use here comes off as little more than a means of gouging ticket-buyers for an extra $2 to $4 a pop—or, more aptly stated, $6 to $25 a family. This is just one of the many illustrations of the fact that Up is yet another animated film made with purely commercial intentions, no matter how delightful its visuals and high-concept its premise may be.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 6.13.2009

Screened on: 5.29.2009 at the AMC Santa Monica 7 in Santa Monica, CA.


Up is rated G and runs 96 minutes.

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