Thanks for the adventure. Now go have yourself a new one.
So a dying Ellie has written in her adventure scrapbook, one she had previously left blank in order to fill with pictures when she finally got to Paradise Falls, Venezuela like her hero, the explorer Charles Muntz. It was a dream shared by her childhood friend-turned-husband Carl, and in one of the most talked-about scenes from “Up,” we see a wedding-day to funeral-day montage of a sweet and constant love between two adults who never lose the ability to dream. I don’t know what’s more poignant . . . her passing, her wishing him a new adventure rather than a life of mourning, or the fact that she had filled her adventure album with photos from their everyday life–their adventure. It’s touching, too, and reminiscent of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” that they had bought and fixed up the abandoned house they once used for their pretend adventures as children. But the Disney-Pixar crew doesn’t let this film wallow in weepy sentimentality. “Up” is a mostly upbeat adventure, and a comic one that ought to appeal to the entire family.
When Carl’s house is surrounded by construction and he loses his temper after a mailbox he and Ellie painted together is struck by heavy machinery, he reflexively whacks a man over the head with his walker. The next thing you know he’s in court, shades of Santa Claus in “Miracle on 31st Street,” facing the charge of being a public menace. His sentence: Shady Oaks Retirement Village. But inspired by Ellie’s dream of living in a house at the top of Paradise Falls and that change jar they kept throughout their lives for just that purpose, he devises a plan. Oh, the seeds had been planted in earlier montages, when we see the role that a balloon plays in his first finding Ellie, landing in the hospital, and having her communicate with him via balloon. And there’s a balloon cart that an adult Carl has to keep pushing back down to earth as he sells them to kids. So why not strap a gazillion balloons to the house and let them pull him away from all of this? The scene where those thousands of real-looking CGI balloons are released and break the house free from its moorings is a triumph of animation.
Casting an old man as the hero in a cartoon adventure is positively inspired–although you’d almost expect it from the Pixar gang, who’ve been fascinated by old men since their very first short. Like the Oscar-winning “Geri’s Game,” about an old man who wiles away the time by playing checkers with himself, “Up” has plenty of old-age humor, balanced by whimsy. Thankfully, though, a 78 year old isn’t the only source of humor. Far from it, in fact. Providing additional laughs are an eight-year-old Junior Wilderness Explorer Scout named Russell who talks a mile a minute and stows away on the airborne house; a dog named Dug who, like Russell, is undervalued and sent on a snipe hunt of his own; and a giant bird named Kevin who lives high on the mountains of Patagonia, in South America. And while those three characters carry the bulk of the jokes on their backs, other laughs come from a rather large and intimidating pack of dogs who TALK.
Disney has done a lot of brilliant things, but conceiving of a logical reason for animals talking, rather than just making them talk, is a regular Einstein move. In South America, when Carl and Russell encounter the aged Muntz, they discover that the explorer has devised a collar with a device that enables dogs to talk. Okay, so he’s an explorer and not an inventor, but it oddly makes sense. And whether it’s a dog collar gone haywire that makes the Alpha dog sound like he’s on helium, or the dogs’ reaction to the “cone of shame” (that pet owners know all too well when their dogs are kept from chewing on infected areas or new stitches), small laughs abound. They make those age jokes even funnier, somehow. One of the most memorable scenes is a climax between Carl and the villain who really isn’t a villain but a man possessed. When both of them lift sword and walker to do harm to the other, you hear a back crack, then a cry of pain. Fun details like that make it hard not to warm up to “Up.”
When I saw this film aboard a Disney cruise ship during its theatrical run, I liked it a lot, but felt a little jarred by the Patagonia sequence involving the explorer. It took a turn into wild adventure that I wasn’t prepared for, mostly because the set-up centered on Carl’s age and the tone previously was totally different. But I didn’t see it as a problem the second time around. In fact, I’d be surprised if “Up” wasn’t a shoe-in for a Best Animated Film Oscar. Director Pete Docter (“Monsters Inc.”) was an animator for “Geri’s Game” (1997), and so clearly he had the vision for this film that caused John Lasseter to hand him the balloon strings and fly with it. Co-directing is his co-writer Bob Peterson, who makes his directorial debut. But where does a director go after a debut like this?
“Up” is totally deserving of the praise it’s received. The concept is fresh and original, the artwork and animation are incredible, the screenplay is packed with humor and adventure, the directors and editor have a nice sense of scene and pacing, and the voice talents do a phenomenal job. Leading the cast is Ed Asner, who gives voice to the crusty but vulnerable Carl Fredricksen, with Jordan Nagai giving voice to little Russell, Christopher Plummer playing the heavy, Peterson handling the voices for Dug and Alpha, and the director’s daughter, Elie, providing the voice of the hilariously exuberant and slightly bullying Young Ellie. And, of course, Pixar good luck charm John Ratzenberger makes an appearance, this time as a construction foreman. Collectively, their deliveries, their inflections, and their level of emotional engagement couldn’t be better, and the animators really managed to capture every nuance of their speech in facial expressions and gestures. It’s one of the things, frankly, that sets Disney animation apart from the rest.
“Up” is rated PG for “some peril and action.”
When I saw this on the cruise ship theater, it was in 3-D, so I was a little surprised that a bundle containing a Blu-ray plus DVD plus Digital Copy doesn’t include a 3-D version. But such decisions are made with all the research and deliberateness of a presidential campaign, and so I trust that Disney knows what they’re doing. As it is, “Up” is one of the best-looking Blu-rays of the year. Forget talk of artifacts and transfers and other tech-speak mumbo jumbo. The bottom line is that this movie looks fantastic in 1080p, a real marvel to watch from scene to scene. The level of detail is such that the hairs on Carl’s considerable eyebrows seem to stand out individually. Colors are rich and warm in the beginning, and then the palette shifts with every mood that “Up” takes you through, with striking definition throughout. The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer is flawless, and the film, presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio, is darned close to that.
When the house rips loose from its foundation, tearing pipes and scraping the Shady Oaks van as it gains a little height, it’s as if you’re right there in the movie theater hearing every harrowing effect. The replication is right-on, and all six channels get involved in a major way. The sonic structure is rich and complex, with sounds lingering in mid-air rather than hovering close to the source speakers. It’s a real pleasure to listen to. The featured soundtrack is an English DTS-HD 5.1 MA with additional options in 2.0 DTS-HD for those who prefer concert-style sound and French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish. There’s plenty of resonance and very little to criticize in this soundtrack. Heck, make that nothing to criticize.
This is a four-disc set, with the feature on Blu-ray (disc one), DVD (disc three), Digital Copy (disc four), and a fourth disc full of bonus features. Viewers with Profile 1.1 capability will enjoy the Cine-Explore commentary track featuring the directors in a full-blown discussion of the film, with pop-ups and PIP video streaming that features early artwork, location research, and talking heads that offer more information than we’re used to getting in such features. It’s a great way to re-watch the film. Then there’s a roughly 50-minute documentary that is broken up into seven chapters: “Geriatric Hero,” “Canine Companions,” “Wilderness Explorer,” “Our Giant Flightless Friend,” “Homemakers of Pixar,” “Balloons and Flight,” and “Composing for Characters.” All of the titles pretty much tell you what the features are about. All that remains is for me to tell you whether they’re substantial or not, and they most certainly are.
In other bonus features, there’s a little over 20-minute extra in which director Docter talks about the genesis of the film (it was his story) and gives us more insight into the set and production design. There’s a little overlapping, but not that much. What’s fascinating is that this group really went to remote areas of South America to draw inspiration for the film, and they had some pretty hairy experiences along the way. This is the kind of feature that holds your attention from start to finish.
Pixar fans will be glad that both shorts that showed along with the feature film are here as well. The best of them is “Partly Cloudy,” a fun little 6-minute film about a stork whose assignments to deliver babies to earth keep getting more dangerous each time. The other, “Dug’s Special Mission,” (5 min.) feels more like an outtake from the film.
Then there’s “The Many Endings of Muntz,” which gives viewers an alternate scene that runs around five minutes, and “Married Life,” alternate scenes involving Carl and Ellie. Surprisingly, there’s but one kid-friendly feature here, apart from the Pixar shorts, and that’s the “Global Guardian Badge Game.” And you need a Profile 2.0 player to experience this bi-level search game.
Promo spots and trailers are also included (big deal), and the film is BD-Live enabled. But a feature that might easily be overlooked could be one that Blu-ray fans treasure the most: a sequence that can help you calibrate your audio and video.
If “Up” doesn’t win an Oscar, you get the feeling that Carl Fredrickson may well take the stage with his tennis-ball tipped walker and say, “Ahhhhhhhhh.” Because, as corny as it sounds, “Up” soars to new animation heights.