Sometimes, when reading a review, a little background about the viewers experience with that particular genre can be extremely relevant. In this case, I think it is most important that I lay my cards on the table right from the start. When it comes to animation, I am a traditionalist. I viewed the day that Pixar burst onto the scene with their computer animation, and the speed with which the technique proceeded to dominate and then destroy hand-drawn cel animation, as a very sad day indeed. Looking back at some of those early efforts (as I did recently with The Incredibles) they really were quite crude with their animation. I realise that there was more to these films than just the quality of the animation - but to me they just failed to excite me, to move me. Pixar films really didn't do it for me.
This changed last year, with the release of the wondrous Wall-E. One of my favourite films of last year, the film advanced computer animation to a new level. But if there was a flaw in that film, it was the fact that it just didn't appeal to my test audience - my 6 year old niece and 4 year old nephew. I took them to the cinema to see it, and they were just completely bored. I chose not to take them to see UP at the cinema, but my sister did and they all came out having thoroughly enjoyed it - to the extent that when a review copy was offered up, they wouldn't stop badgering me. It was obvious, therefore, that UP appealed to them. The big question is, would it appeal to me?
UP is the story of Carl Frederickson. We first meet him as a child, watching the adventures of famous explorer Charles Munz on a scratchy black and white cinema screen. Munz has returned from Paradise Falls in South America with the skeleton of a previously unknown animal. A big bird. However, the American public fail to believe him, denouncing the skeleton as a fake. Munz takes off into the sunset, vowing never to return until he has a live specimen.
On the way home from the cinema, Frederickson stops off at a deserted house, and meets Ellie - a tomboy explorer with the same taste for adventure he has. A heart breaking montage follows them through marriage and life, and the tragedies life can bring, until the death of Ellie leaves Carl alone and facing forceful removal into a rest home. But he wont go quietly, having tied a load of balloons to his house, he takes off in a search for Paradise Falls, the lifelong dream he shared with Ellie.
Unfortunately for him, a local Wilderness Scout, Russell, has stowed away on his porch - and becomes his reluctant companion on the journey. Will Frederickson and Russell reach Paradise Falls, will they bond, and what on earth has Munz got to do with all this? I could tell you, but realistically that would spoil the story. So it is something you will just have to find out for yourself. And finding out will be, trust me, a pleasure!
By now, I am sure you are aware of the rave reviews that this film has received from the critics, and the almost unprecedented OSCAR recognition (nominated for best film), and all these plaudits are fully deserved. What makes this film special is how it manages to appeal to all age groups. The children enjoyed it, and I was amazed to enjoy it even more than Wall-E
Like other classics of the genre, the film has an emotional core which is deeply moving but it also has plenty of action, slapstick and cure characters. It also has a very funny sense of humour that pitches jokes that will appeal to both young and old. What the film gets so right is the characterisation. Frederickson himself is a masterpiece of animation. The emotion that the animators manage to portray through the slightest of movements, or change in facial expression, is just masterful. In that respect, this film probably represents a new breakthrough in animation. The subtlety of his reactions to what is going on around him, and the way these are portrayed are beyond anything Pixar have achieved before. His relationship with Kevin is certainly the stuff of cliché, but the way it is portrayed here manages to seem fresh and new - the way the characters both change is never rammed down your throat. The relationship develops organically and it is an absolute joy to watch.
But although relationships are at the heart of the film, that would not be enough to sustain the whole film. There has to be a good story weaved around these characters, and this is one of the film's particular strengths. The story is extremely well paced, never allowing proceedings to flag. It spends just about the perfect amount of time building up Frederickson's back story, tugging at the adult heart strings without pushing away the children, before launching into the adventure properly. The typical cute / comedy characters are introduced at the perfect time, the action sequences are well mounted and really thrill. There are also several sly references to various classics (I noticed Star Wars and Temple of Doom in particular).
There are also some stunning set pieces here, that rival anything we have seen in animated films up to now, and stand comparison to non-animated cinema. The arrival at Paradise Falls, the launching of the house, the airship battle - all of these are breathtaking in their scope and are truly cinematic.
The voice acting is also of an extremely high standard throughout. I can't say that I have heard of any of the performers here, but they all bring a lot to the roles, voicing their characters to perfection and adding a nice touch of emotion and comedy to the roles when required.
Reading back over this review, I have been universally positive, and to be honest there is very little I can say in detriment to this film. The word masterpiece may be overused, but this is certainly Pixar's masterpiece. It has taken computer animation to a new level, and although it probably doesn't quite deserve to win an OSCAR for best film, it HAS to be a shoe-in for the animated film OSCAR. It is one of those films where everything seems to come together to make a perfect whole. The animation, story, direction, performances, and even the music (by Michael Giaccino) just complement each other perfectly.
So whether you have children or not, even if you are not an animated film fan, UP is a film that will provide much enjoyment and plenty of re-watch value. It really is a film that deserves a place in your collection.