Pixar’s Up, released in 2009, was their tenth film and their tenth successive hit in a row; it was also their first foray into 3D. Whilst the third dimension was not a major selling point at the time, it nevertheless gave the makers that first tentative step, one that was needed before the company could really develop and explore how to use this new technique to enhance their story telling. As such the 3D elements of Up are not to the same standards of their later efforts, specifically Cars 2. But what it does have, and this is something Cars 2 lacks, is the typical Pixar storytelling wonder; that magic to develop characters that you care about and, as such, will follow throughout their adventures, no matter how ludicrous the initial idea maybe. Let us, then, take a brief look at tonight’s feature, Up, before I dissect the major selling point of this set - the 3D (since the same package sans the 3D disc has been around for some time).
The first eleven minutes of Up are quite astonishing; almost like a mini film all to itself, telling as it does the life story of both our protagonist and our antagonist. It also has the highs and lows associated with the best storytelling and it is not afraid to grabs those heartstrings and give them a damn good pulling. Remarkable that such a short piece of film can involve you to such an extent. It serves to introduce the character of Charles Muntz, an ‘old time’ intrepid explorer in a kind of Howard Hughes mould, who, after returning from the lost continent of Paradise Falls with the remains of a giant ‘monster’ bird was ridiculed by the scientific community as a fraud. These opening scenes demonstrate the mind set behind Muntz, he is an explorer trying to garner fame by his exploits, but is equally as proud about his achievements and, once scorned, vows revenge on the scientists by promising never to return to the USA unless he has conclusive proof, i.e. a live specimen, in a kind of cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face attitude – and the makers skilfully seed the ideas of against-the-odds, fierce determination and absolute drive in the character, in what amounts to a few seconds of footage. Christopher Plummer (who clearly needs no introduction) gives voice to Muntz adding a weary but determined vitriol to the character. When we meet him again the years have taken their toll, and not only on his body, as the determination to prove himself right has driven all sense of reason from him; a combination of isolation and sheer guts has meant that the end goal is worth any sacrifice, including murder. This is a particularly dark character, and one without the supernatural whimsy of other Disney films; his drive is completely tangible given the circumstances of his predicament and his own nature. Whilst he has very little actual screen time he covers all the ‘evil’ bases and is certainly someone to be feared. It is a testament to the great story telling that Muntz is both a hero and a villain with equal measure.
Introduced at the same time, via a child watching a cinema news reel, is our protagonist, an, at the time, eight year old Karl Fredricksen. Karl watches the news footage with wide eyed awe and is right with Muntz in his perceived treachery; but being so young is quickly transported back to the ‘spirit of adventure’ as he vaults rivers (puddles), traverses caverns (cracks in the pavement) and circumnavigates mountains (boxes). Here is a child that is adventurous but shy, and very happy with his own company and it is only happenstance that sees him meet what will turn out to be his life partner. Accidently passing a derelict house and hearing the familiar cry of “Adventure is out there”, Karl first sets eyes on Ellie, a young girl with exactly the same sense of adventure that resides in his heart. They bond one night when Ellie, after causing Karl to break his arm, shows him her ‘adventure book’, a scrap book that details all her adventures to date and leads into her ‘stuff to do’ when she reaches Paradise Falls. This book will become one of the focuses of the film, and one of the deepest moments of empathy for Karl. (Watch for another lump in your throat when he reads Ellie's final message to him once he turns the pages after 'stuff I'm going to do').
From here, Michael Giacchino’s wonderfully touching, melancholic but at the same time happy score leads us through a short montage of Karl and Ellie’s life; and it is during this short piece when your mettle will be tested against the might of the story teller – as you get older this portion becomes harder and harder to watch without becoming emotionally involved and thus distraught by the significance of the events that take place. It is strong storytelling, emotional storytelling, involving storytelling; i.e. it is wonderful story telling and something that only Pixar manage to nail correctly every time (we ignore Cars 2). As the characters age the once infectious enthusiasm for life that Ellie had that dragged Karl along for the ride slows and Karl takes over the lead, looking after his beloved as they struggle to realise their dream of reaching Paradise Falls. Until, of course, the inevitable happens and you are left in no doubt as to your emotional state as for the second time, in (nearly) as many minutes, your heart is torn from your chest. And as someone who has comparatively recently found another soul that makes me feel as Karl feels for Ellie; I lived for every second they were together, felt their joy and their sorrow and was as empty as Karl without his mate.
And yet, even with all this emotional involvement going on, the makers still find time to define Karl’s character as an equally determined and equally driven man, as Muntz is, who is just beaten by circumstance, and who, when the chips are down, relies on himself and his own gumption. The house that he shared with Ellie (the same one in which they met, in fact) has become his sanctuary; it's still set out as if she were alive, he still sits in the same spot, talking to the chair in which she used to hold hands with him, as the world changes around him. (I adore the few seconds spent with Karl as, after the storm, he sets about putting the room back together - the first item he arranges is Ellie's chair, then his own). Exterior shots show just how much has changed, the leafy neighbourhood has long gone, in its place is a huge construction site, building future homes/offices/malls, but Karl wants none of it, he wants to nothing to do with life outside of his home. Little wonder then, when that home is threatened he elects to go ‘up’- in the image that adorns the poster work for the film. Karl is played by Edward Asner (whose credits go off the page, but significantly has a large amount of voice work amongst them) who manages to imbue the character with empathy, resolve, determination and courage, all in equal measure – when he is telling a story it's like listening to your granddad, when he’s angry it’s like listening to your father; he perfectly captures the spirit of Karl and it's little wonder that we side with him through all the tribulations that confront him.
Our final character (excluding the dogs and ‘Kevin’ the bird) is that of Russell, a young wilderness scout who befriends Karl to try to earn himself the ‘assisting the aged’ badge he needs to become a senior scout. When we first meet him, Russell is quite an annoying child whom the exasperated Karl sends off on a fool’s errand. However as the story progresses and the two are forced to bond due to their predicament we find that Russell is equally as lost as poor Karl due to his own parental issues. The story of ‘red car – blue car’, the boring stuff remembered the most, is just as touching as Karl’s own history and it is extremely gratifying that the makers deal with this situation by giving Karl the child he always wanted but was unable to achieve and, as such, giving Russell the father he also needs. The passing of the ‘highest honour’ badge is, once again, another monumentally touching moment, as both Karl and Russell move on in their lives.
I simply adore the sentiments told by Up and it never fails to touch me no matter how many times I watch it. It contains everything that Pixar does best; well rounded and identifiable characters that we side with and follow sharing their joy and their sorrow, a typically mad idea, but one that we buy into due to the time and emotion invested in the characters and a fantastic feel good attitude that brings you back for more. An overused saying, perhaps, but it’s very apt here; Up is a film for all ages as it caters for both young and old alike; highly recommended.