Old 08-21-2009, 10:24 AM

(Pete Docter, 2009)

Looking back, I can’t help but to immediately notice a very interesting pattern in my past movie reviews. This is the third Pixar movie I have written a review for, and this will also be the third consecutive time that I will open the review with the following sentence: Pixar have done it again. Once again, they have proved that no animation studio – and no live action studio either, for that matter – can come anywhere near the sheer and utter quality of their entertainment, purely and simply put. Pixar have proven once again that they can take a concept and premise that doesn’t sound particularly attractive at first, and turn it into a masterwork of cinema. They have proven that unlike their animation studio contemporaries, Pixar don’t need celebrity voices and characters specifically designed to be packaged and ready for delivery to toy store shelves, and they certainly don’t feel the need to patronize their young audience members by injecting into their films jokes that only parents can understand. And they have proven once again that unlike most live-action studio output, it is still possible to create compelling, dramatic and irresistibly entertaining cinema from original screenplays without falling into formulas, clichés or any other kind of compromise for the sake of the audience. In short, Pixar have once again proven that they are the best film studio working today, period.

When talking about an animated film such as this one, I feel obligated first and foremost to mention the technical aspects of the technique itself. And like their unmatched content, Pixar have proved with Up that they also remain unrivaled in terms of the quality of their animation work. Throughout the years, Pixar have always pushed the boundaries with their animation, revolutionizing everything from camera movement to fur and hair textures to perfecting the natural elements such as fire, clouds, skin and everything in between – not to mention revolutionizing the animation world in general by creating the first computer animated feature to begin with. But since Ratatouille and onwards, Pixar directors such as Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton and Up’s Pete Doctor have been showing uncanny sensibilities and acuteness to evoking the live-action cinematic elements, from depth of field to focal lengths to creatively compelling lighting, angles and camera set-ups. WALL-E, for instance, utilized hand-held photography and zooms, elements not usually seen in an animated film as it is painstaking to recreate them. Up is far more subtle in this field but still shows keen devotion to these elements such as lighting and depth of field/focus, certainly more so than the other animated studios, which are still mostly in the “point-and-shoot” phase. That said, Up has another thing going for it with its beautiful 3D environments. I know that the technique has many detractors, but I for one think that the 3D is absolutely gorgeous and adds volumes to the film experience in terms of texture and setting. Luckily, the filmmakers behind Up are too smart to use 3D as a gimmick, instead using it as just another technique like black-and-white photography, and it actually does some quite fascinating wonders in terms of emphasizing distance and size.

So what makes a Pixar movie tick? What makes this studio’s output so consistently better than that of pretty much all the other film studios today, animated or otherwise? I think the answer can be summed up in one simple but crucial word: characters. For Pixar, as for all the great screenwriters both past and present, a film begins and ends with its characters; create compelling and identifiable characters and you can pretty safely bet that an equally compelling story will come along with them. Within the first ten minutes of this film, you know you’re in for something different as you see Doctor portray in a completely dialogue-less montage an entire life-long relationship, from the shy childhood beginnings of our protagonist Carl and his soon-to-be-wife Ellie and through their ups and downs, hardships living a complete life together, and finally her eventual death, all the while their childhood dream hovering above them but never quite coming to fruition. It is a heartbreakingly beautiful and poignant sequence, probably the best ten-minute block Pixar have ever created, and while the film does take a slightly different direction from there, it doesn’t cease from still bringing up very poignant topics throughout, including hardships of old age, unhealthy obsession, divorce, a child’s rejection by his father, and other such resonant, real-life experiences that one wouldn’t expect to see in a children’s film. Here within lies Pixar’s secret, which is additionally exemplified in the story and the humor in their films as well: they don’t patronize their young audience members by providing two planes of existence in the film – jokes and plot points for the kids and another set for the adults – but rather, Pixar manage to find the subjects, plot points, visual gags and jokes that both children AND their parents can relate to. For example, I’m nowhere near being a parent yet, but I can imagine this film serving as a very good starting-off point for important parent-child discussions, such as divorce, deteriorating old age of grandparents, and where babies come from.

In terms of the plot and characters, Pixar excel in this film as they always do in creating the most compelling ones they possibly can – it comes as no surprise to learn that actor and acclaimed indie film writer-director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent and last year’s brilliant The Visitor) was involved in writing the screenplay. Both of the film’s protagonists – 80-year-old Carl and 8-year-old Russell – are extremely unique and very well-defined and identifiable; they are exaggerated, sure, but have enough genuine character traits and emotions for us audience members to imagine their real-life counterparts and also see parts of our own real lives within the characters’. In terms of the story, Pixar go down a new and yet-unexplored route for them, taking real-life characters and placing them in a whimsical and extraordinary environment (whereas usually, Pixar characters already exist in this whimsical and fantastical environment, so its extraordinary nature comes as no surprise to them). Also, after a couple of more small-scale and personal films such as Ratatouille and WALL-E, Pixar return with their most adventurous and far-reaching film since The Incredibles, with many scenes evoking the classic, edge-of-your-seat cinematic adventure excitement we used to see in the classics such as the tank scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, or the climactic finale of Back to the Future. Throughout the years, Pixar have shown this impeccable ability to naturally create this kind of nail-biting, how-will-they-get-out-of-it thrill which seems to have completely disappeared from Up’s Hollywood-produced live-action counterparts. It should also be mentioned that with such a colorful cast of supporting characters, from Kevin the dinosaur-bird hybrid to Dug the talking dog, many moments with them and other characters add together to make this one of Pixar’s funniest films, and certainly their funniest since Finding Nemo, which had me in stitches.

The bottom line is that there is simply no studio quite like Pixar. Only they could represent more genuine human emotion and feelings in a silent, 6-minute short film than any major Hollywood production of the past 10 years (the short preceding the film, “Partly Cloudy”, is one of Pixar’s all-time best in my opinion, in terms of hilarity but also in terms of poignant emotional resonance). Only they could take a premise of a man tying helium balloons to his house and flying it to South America and turn it into one of the most dramatic, compelling and irresistibly entertaining films of the past few years. Only they could take a film whose protagonists are a grumpy, sour 80-year-old widower and a chubby, 8-year-old obnoxious Asian child and turn it into one of the most massive box office successes of the year. And for that, they deserve all the praise in the world, and them some.

RATING: 9/10.
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