Robots, insects, monsters and cars – if it’s got fur, scales or moving parts you can bet Pixar has drawn it.
With a few exceptions, however (The Incredibles, Ratatouille’s Linguini), John Lasseter’s team has stayed away from human protagonists, a holdover maybe from the knowledge that their first attempt to render flesh and blood in CG form (Toy Story’s toy-torturer Sid) left major room for improvement.
Time and technology have both moved on, though. And with Up, Pixar’s 10th full-length feature, the company has finally come up with a homo sapiens hero as memorable and loveable as Woody, Buzz and Nemo. Meet Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner, hitherto best known for his role as Lou Grant on Mary Tyler Moore), a 78-year-old curmudgeon who wants nothing more than to be left alone in the home he shared with his late wife Ellie. Hunched and squat, with a jaw as rigid as the frames of his clunky spectacles, he’s a cantankerous, grumpy, sour-faced grouch. Yet the film’s barely begun and he’s already stolen our hearts. How can this be?
For the answer, look no further than The Greatest Moment In Movie Animation, as revealed by Total Film last issue: an early montage that beautifully charts Carl and Ellie’s life together from playful childhood to tragic separation. A masterclass in wordless, poignant and economic storytelling, it’s Pixar’s finest achievement so far – better even than Wall•E’s Chaplin-esque pottering on that futuristic junk-heap or Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl’s flashback in Toy Story 2. And it leaves us ready to follow Carl anywhere, even if it is to a remote table-top mountain in South America he and Ellie had always planned on visiting.
Walt Disney said for every laugh there should be a tear. (He also said there should be no unions in Hollywood, but we’ll let that one slide.) Lest you assume Up is one long sob-fest, we should hasten to add that once that gut-punching salvo is over the movie settles into a more traditional groove – one that’s wacky, exhilarating and consistently funny.
With the help of thousands of multi-coloured, helium-filled balloons and some basic engineering, Carl and his house take to the skies in a magical moment of surreal wonder. Unwittingly aboard is eight-year-old Russell (Jordan Nagai), a tubby Wilderness Explorer whose determination to obtain his ‘Assisting The Elderly’ badge has led him to stake out Carl’s suddenly airborne porch.
Monsters, Inc. director Pete Docter could have easily spent the rest of his film exploring this odd-couple relationship. Instead he takes an arguably more challenging route, getting his mismatched duo to Paradise Falls in double-quick time for an earthbound adventure involving a flightless bird, a pack of talking mutts and a face from Carl’s childhood, long thought lost.
This is all terrific, if chaotic fun, the sheer lunacy of dogs with thought-verbalising collars giving rise to pricelessly absurd humour. (“You two shall have much rewardings from Master for the toil factor you wage!” chief pooch Alpha tells his subordinates in a malfunctioning voice that sounds like he’s been inhaling Carl’s helium.) Yet try as it might, the film’s second half never attains the sublime heights of the sophisticated first, despite a splendid finale involving a Hindenburg-like dirigible and a literal aerial dogfight.
Pixar has always trod a blurry line between its desire to stretch the boundaries of its medium and its need to deliver commercially viable and lucrative product. Up, with its daringly low-key beginning and a mobile-home concept reminiscent of Howl’s Moving Castle, certainly goes further in the first direction than their previous offerings. Yet, it comes at a small but significant cost: a conspicuous ramping-up of child-pleasing mayhem in the latter stages and a sentimental, almost cynically feel-good coda.
It’s as if Docter feels he needs to reward audiences for contemplating mortality, or placate infants who may have been getting a wee bit restless. Captivated and charmed as you are, you’re left wondering what marvels Pixar might one day achieve should it ever be freed from its family-friendly imperative.
Still, it’s a tad churlish to ask for more from an outfit that’s already given us so much and that, with next year’s Toy Story 3, may yet surpass its own high standards. Perhaps it’s enough that Up represents one of its most emotionally-rewarding movies, as well as the most satisfying animated feature thus far made in the 3D format.
No doubt there’ll come a time when Lasseter’s mob will disappoint; after all, what goes Up must eventually come down. But for now, let’s be like Russell and go along for the glorious ride.