Adventure isn't out there - it's all around you ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Adventure isn't out there - it's all around you

My rating:

On the one hand, it must be great to be Pixar. Having made nine of the most highly-acclaimed animated films of all time, they've literally become a guarantee of smart, heart-warming, and supremely enjoyable cinema. On the other hand, it must be tough to be Pixar. Every great movie they make raises expectations even higher for their next - it must be unimaginably difficult just to meet the sky-high standards they've set for themselves.

Yet somehow, they can still surpass them.

After a long and happy marriage that ended with his wife's death, Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) is a grumpy old man who still harbours a childhood dream - and a promise to his wife - to become an explorer and travel to the fabled Paradise Falls. He sets out to fulfill this dream by floating his entire house away on thousands of helium balloons - but a stowaway eight-year-old boy named Russell (Jordan Nagai) complicates his plans. Together they will explore "a land lost in time", encounter a giant bird and a talking dog, as well as Carl's childhood hero Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) - who isn't as heroic as Carl thinks.

It's amazing how many things this film attempts, and how it succeeds at every single one. As an action-adventure, it has thrills and spills galore. As a comedy, it's both hilarious and clever. As an animated film, it is gorgeously realized, with character designs that are immensely likeable and better-acted than most live-action films. As a response to those who think an elderly character could never appeal to kids, it puts their naysaying to shame. And - most amazing of all - as a meditation on loss and grief, and an exhortation to live one's life to the fullest even when it seems to be over... wow.

Seriously, wow. To attempt a story of such emotional depth in an animated movie. One thing Pixar doesn't get enough credit for is their ambition, besides the superlative technical and artistic skills to meet that ambition. I've read plenty of reviews that rave about Up's first 10 minutes, and what a masterpiece of poignant storytelling it is. And it is. Nothing could spoil the heartbreaking sadness, the sheer emotional power of it. Ellie was literally the love of Carl's life, and to lose that would be a pain greater than any of us could possibly imagine, let alone bear.

And Carl doesn't only bear it - the film is about him overcoming it. For all that he loved exploring and adventure as a child, when he finally embarks on his long-awaited journey, he spends most of it refusing adventure. The giant prehistoric bird - whom Russell names Kevin - doesn't impress him. A literal talking dog named Dug is just an annoyance to him. And when adventure calls to him to help Kevin... Carl would rather live in the memory of his dead wife. How he finally comes to his senses, to choose the present over the past, to honour his wife in spirit instead of in mere form - it is brilliant, brilliant storytelling. And it's an animated movie.

But Carl isn't the only compelling character, of course. Russell's wide-eyed innocence is the catalyst for Carl's change of heart, but there's a reason why he's so eager for the old man's attention and approval. (And Nagai's performance is amazing - voice casting and direction is yet another thing that Pixar does miles better than anyone else.) Dug, being a dog, is just as eager; his antics, along with the rest of Muntz's talking dogs, highlight the Pixar knack of portraying animals with human characteristics to hilarious effect. I doubt there's any real-life bird, giant or otherwise, as affectionate and intelligent as Kevin, but nobody could possibly quibble. And Muntz
makes for an eminently hissable villain.

Is it flawless? No - but I shan't even mention its missteps, so minor are they. It does so much right, and does it so right. This is easily one of the best movies of the year, folks - incredibly funny, thrilling, heartwarming, and possessing real emotional truth - everything you can expect from Pixar, and more. I'm planning to rewatch all of Pixar's films again (and boy am I looking forward to it!) for a retrospective review, and I can safely say that my all-time favourite Pixar movie is still The Incredibles. But even if Up is not the best, it's up there. It's definitely up there.

NEXT REVIEW: the Pixar retrospective, of course. What else is worth watching right now?

Update: Yes, I watched it again. And yes. It is flawless.

Those missteps I mentioned? There were only two: firstly, I thought Russell's dismay at Carl choosing his house over saving Kevin was a little too purposeful, too calculated towards Carl's character arc. I'd felt that Russell would be more understanding. But then again, Russell never did learn why the house was so important to Carl; and furthermore, he did make Carl swear (and cross his heart) that Carl would protect Kevin. Secondly, Muntz's attempted murder of Russell seemed jarring in a family-friendly film, which was a visceral reaction more than anything else. It simply didn't bother me the second time around, and neither did the thing about Russell.

And then there's the things I only just noticed. Carl and Charles - similar-sounding names, because the film employs the time-honoured trope of hero and villain being mirror images of each other. Both made a promise in their youth, and both grew obsessed with it in their old age, to the point of losing sight of their ideals - and they both happen to have had the same ideal. Muntz traded it for glory, Carl for grief - but Carl regained it when he discovered the true meaning of it. And what is this ideal? It's in the name of Muntz's airship - the one that Carl claims as his own, to replace that which symbolized the grief that he learned to put aside. The one named after the ideal that Muntz inspired in Carl in the first place.

Like I said - brilliant, brilliant storytelling. Four stars. Undoubtedly.

Update the 2nd: Rating revised to reflect my new five-star rating scale.


Anonymous said...

the incredibles is also my favourite from pixar.
cant say i enjoyed up as much as you did.
the others were good but not all were as great to me as they were for you.
but still, good reading your reviews.