Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Man, A House and a Million Balloons

Up (2009)

It’s not the destination that’s important but the journey.

That familiar refrain sums up the main theme of Up. However, I don’t feel that Pixar, the greatest animation house producing films today, created a journey that was all that engaging.

This is tells the story of an old man who finally decides to go on the “adventure of a lifetime” to uncharted lands that he once promised to visit with his late wife. Ed Asner voices Carl, the old former balloom man who outfits his home with thousands of colorful helium balloons to take him on the long-promised but equally long-put off journey into the unknown. The only thing he plans to take with him is the memory of Ellie, his late wife who shared with him that spirit of adventure.

Much to Carl’s chagrin he’s picked up a hitchhiker in the form of a young, enthusiastic Wilderness Explorer named Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai), who just wanted to get a new Badge for Assisting the Elderly by helping Carl. Carl and Russell in the balloon-lifted house soar between the streets and buildings and over the fields in a beautiful sequence, aided by another fine Michael Giacchino musical score.

It has some terrific moments, including the opening montage where we see Carl and Ellie as they get married and move into the house, fixing it up as they go along, and saving for that thrilling trip to mysterious Paradise Falls somewhere in South America; it’s a trip they’ve been talking about taking since they met as young children. They were inspired by the newsreel accounts of 1930s adventurer Charles Muntz (voice of Christopher Plummer). Muntz went back to Paradise Falls to seek out a time-lost creature that had eluded him the first time he set foot there, and he vowed never to return unless he had proof of the creature’s existence. And he has not been heard from again, all these many decades later.

Once Carl and Russell get to South America, however, the movie loses a lot of the majesty of the earlier flying sequence. For one thing I thought the visual design of the plateau at Paradise Falls was rather dull, as far as lost worlds go. The original King Kong in 1933 was not merely set in a realistic tropical, jungle-filled island but one that fit the mystery and magic of that fantasy story, with gnarly ancient trees and plants you would not see in a typical jungle setting. A lot of the plateau sequences seemed like they just got lost in a national park. Yes, the waterfall was pretty, but it wasn’t breathtaking. It wasn’t magical.

I also never felt that Carl and Russell truly connected. Carl ultimately learns to loosen up and let other people into his life, but he could have learned that with anyone who went on this balloon trip with him. Why must it be Russell? He was cute and sort of funny, but he’s not that memorable. Violet in The Incredibles is a memorable kid, as was her brother Dash. Russell isn’t of that caliber and I felt the story truly needed someone like that to guide Carl out of his funk.

Dug almost stole the show. Heck, he DID steal the show. The animators did a fine job of conveying a dog’s emotions and movements in the caricatured body design (big head, regular-sized body, tiny legs/paws). Co-director Bob Peterson’s voice was perfect as the loveable dog, always looking to please his master. And you crack up no matter how many times you hear “Squirrel!”

Up is not a failure by any means, but it didn’t move me the way Ratatouille or Wall-E did. I might watch it again down the road, perhaps after I’ve spent a day at a national park.

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