Monday, July 27, 2009

Movie Mondays - Up

Confession time: I am not a big fan of Pixar films. I'm probably one of the very few who doesn't like Finding Nemo. I only really start to enjoy The Incredibles once they're all on the island and the action picks up (plus I just hate the boy child Speed or Fleet of Foot, or whatever he's called). And I have never seen Cars and just don't really feel its lack in my life. None of the other Pixar triumphs, not even Toy Story, have made any real sort of pleasurable impact on me. I've lived The Velveteen Rabbit, my friends. Imitations need not apply.

What I do like about Pixar is its commitment to telling complex stories within the fish and car and superhero motifs and the flat out refusal to dumb down the material simply because it's in an animated film. This meshes nicely with their frequent use of pop culture references and their vast appreciation for some of the classics (more on this later) as I love a good tongue-in-cheek jibe. But this is the source of my dissatisfaction at the same time. I cringe when Mr. Incredible is abused by his Napoleon-esque boss. The nebbishness of Papa Fish annoys me, and the whining, good Lord, the whining, really aggravates me. I do admit that his fear for his child does somewhat reflect mine for that which lurks beneath the surface of the deep, deep ocean. An odd sensibility particularly in light of the fact that I could swim almost before (or at least as soon as) I could walk and grew up spending summers body surfing down the Jersey Shore (grammatically, that phrase doesn't make sense, but if you're from Jersey, it does). But the weirdo creatures of the deep, while fascinating and often extremely beautiful even in their creepiness, freak me out. I figure this has more to do with "fear of things unseen" and therefore uncontrollable (have you met me? Control. Freak.) then it does with the actual creatures, but I'm not signing up to scuba dive any time soon just the same.

Aannnddd that concludes today's tangent.

Pixar's use of its medium to explore aspects of the real world is both a mark for and against it in my mind. I'm all for using new avenues to dramatize the issues of our lives, but when it comes with talking fish, cars, or portly, retired superheroes, it depresses me, happy ending or no. If the cute, fictionalized cartoon creatures of celluloid are having identity crises, the rest of us are seriously screwed.

UP is the latest offering from Pixar. I caught (unintentionally) the 3-D version of the film to kick off my Fourth of July holiday weekend, doing my solo act in a late afternoon viewing so as not to be bothered by having to be polite and nice to a companion, however welcome he/she may have been. I like going to movies with people because I like having someone to talk with about the film afterward (and, yes, during) but I'm also just as happy on my own. Sometimes more so.

UP tells the story of balloon salesman Carl Fredrickson. A shy, young boy who won't step on a sidewalk crack, Carl secretly wishes he was brave enough to be a swashbuckling adventurer. Then one day, Carl meets Ellie, herself a fearless dreamer determined to set off for the wilds of South America. Carl, she quickly decides, can come along for the ride. It's not long before these childhood best friends grow up to become man and wife. Over the years, Ellie's fierce exuberance balances Carl's practicality and they share the many happy adventures of everyday life together. But when their dream to have children is squashed, Carl decides now is the time to stop talking about going to South America and just do it. They set aside a fund jar to save their loose change for the journey. But, as so often happens, life frequently invades and the jar is smashed time and again to pay for things like a new roof, a mortgage, an illness. Now in the twilight of their lives, South America is as far away as its ever been. And when Ellie succumbs to illness and old age, Carl is left alone in the house they built together as condos and high-rises increasingly encroach around him.

And this is only the first 10 minutes or so of the movie.

Carl has vehemently resisted the developers vying for his property, but when he inadvertently assaults a construction worker, Carl is forced to relocated to a retirement community. On his last night at home, Carl remembers the promise he once made to Ellie.
When the men in the white coats can pick him up the next day, it's to watch the house float away, anchored to thousands of balloons as Carl finally begins the journey to fulfill Ellie's lifelong dream and plant their home at the top of a waterfall in South America.

Immediately after lifting off, though, Carl discovers that he has a stowaway: 8-year-old Russell, a dedicated member of a Boy Scout-like wilderness explorer club who has been trying to complete his badge requirements by fulfilling his "assisting the elderly" responsibilities. Stuck with the nonstop chatterbox that is Russell, Carl is forced to take him along to South America.

From start to finish, UP is a total delight. The opening montage featuring Carl and Ellie's life together lasts merely the (OK, considerable) length of the opening credits and is heart-warming, tender, and lovely. My heart winced over and over for Carl as first his Ellie and then his treasured home and, more importantly, his independence is taken from him. I couldn't help but superimpose my own beloved grandfather over Carl's likeness as he, like Carl, struggles to find purpose for his every day life in the two years since my grandmother's death with no yard or house to maintain, no wife or children to care and provide for, just a lonely retirement apartment and a failing physical frame. Watching the early scenes of Carl's life and the desperate crisis that finally causes him to lose control (scaring himself to death in the process) and leads to him being forced to vacate his home, well, it quite simply broke my heart.

We are not doing anywhere near our part for our seniors, my friends. We simply aren't. They are our past. They have given us our future. They should be feted and pampered, they should be honored and revered. We cannot ever, not ever, do enough for them.

But I digress.

The humor runs nonstop through this film, effortlessly partnering the pathos without it all ever becoming schmaltzy. Ed Asner gives voice and life to Carl with his trademark lovable gruffness and newcomer Jordan Nagai makes Russell frustratingly endearing, playing up to the edge of supremely annoying (see Fleet of Foot above), but never trundling past it.

I was surprised and pleased that the actual balloon flight didn't take up the majority of the movie. It's not long before Russell and Carl land in South America - just not exactly at the spot where Carl was aiming. Thus the land journey commences and soon, Carl and Russell meet the rare bird Russell dubs Kevin, and the dogs chasing him.

This is where I must make my second confession.

The dogs just kill me. Observe:

They crack me up. From the moment Dug comes on the screen, it all just slays me. No description I could come up with can do it justice. You'll just have to trust me on this. And watch the clip. The dogs rock.

I felt real peril in this film, not just for Carl and Russell and eventually Kevin and Dug. There was definitely a lot of that - how could there not be when the only thing holding them all up was a bunch of balloons? But mainly, I was worried about the house. I found myself gasping out loud at certain points, whispering (to myself of course) the house! WHERE'S THE HOUSE? I was so invested in getting Carl his happy ending, of him somehow finding ease for some of his grief at losing Ellie that I was wound up tight each time it was in jeopardy. I was well and truly along for the ride.

Ellie would be so proud.

UP heralds the notion that that it is never too late and you are never too old to fulfill your dreams. There should be no point at which any of us says, "I'm too old for that". UP also reminds us that we can never know exactly how our lives will change or who or what will do the changing. It takes courage to recognize those moments and to make the best of them. Often it needs a helping hand; sometimes it even requires a talking dog.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the exciting, thrilling, wonderfully impossible climax of the film, where the slightly twisted homages to Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars (and one to the infamous Dogs Playing Poker velvet painting) had me cackling with delight. As soon as I saw the bi-plane hanging from the dirigible, I knew what had to come next and those Pixar boys did not disappoint. It just never gets old, man.

Go see UP. It'll remind you to hope. It'll encourage you to dream. It'll help you appreciate all the people in your life that make you happy. And it might make you want to buy a balloon or two.

Just in case.

UP is rated PG: Parental Guidance suggested for some peril and action

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