Sunday, Nov. 1, 2009

Up and Away

Pixar’s Masterpiece on Blu-ray

By David Luhrssen
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The rules in Hollywood for animated movies are that good animals come from adorable species and children are the primary audience, despite rote efforts at adult double-entendres. Social criticism is masked, muted and aimed at easy targets. Pixar Animation Studios has consistently broken the mold, making a feature starring a rat, and another where a robot discovers that the human race has declined into coddled, super-sized torpor.

No surprise then that with Up (out now on Blu-ray), Pixar ventures boldly onto another road seldom traveled by mainstream animators: the effects of aging. We first meet the protagonist, Carl (voiced by Ed Asner), as a child at a movie matinee, drinking in the newsreel adventures of the Errol Flynn-like explorer Charles Muntz (Chistopher Plummer). Muntz sailed away in his dirigible, The Spirit of Adventure, to Paradise Falls in South America, in search of an unknown bird that walked taller than a man. He never returned.

Carl and the girl he married, Ellie, shared an enthusiasm for the lost explorer. Muntz was the foundation for their dream of adventure, a dream forever deferred of seeing Paradise Falls. Marvelously edited, Up rolls through their marriage within minutes—a changing sequence of Carl’s neckties, knotted as he prepares to go to work each morning, illustrates the passage of time. Carl and Ellie loved each other, the romance barely dimming through sickness and health. They never had children and doted on each other inside their brightly painted, Victorian gingerbread house. And then Ellie entered the hospital and died.

The tragic dimension of life has never escaped Pixar’s screenwriters and the emotional sophistication of their scenarios exceeds virtually anything else from contemporary Hollywood. Face grimly set behind a giant pair of horn-rims, Carl prepares to settle down inside a house of bittersweet memory after losing the one person he loved. Alas, the world won’t leave him alone. His property is surrounded by high-rise construction, financed by developers resembling space aliens in black. Determined to remove the stubborn old man who won’t sell his property, they scheme to send Carl to Shady Grove retirement home. And then there is a pesky kid, Russell, a “Wilderness Explorer” scout eager to fill his sash with one last merit award, the Assisting the Elderly Badge.

In a twist of surreal beauty, Carl surprises everyone when his old house ascends to the sky on a cloud of colored balloons. He floats south on the prevailing wind, heading for dreamland in Paradise Falls. Grumpily, he accepts Russell’s company. After all, the darn kid, determined to earn that badge, clung to the side of the house at liftoff. Carl can’t very well toss him overboard.

With brilliant strokes of writing and animation, Up depicts the deep compassion of a good marriage, the physical aches of old age and the fear of an elderly person suddenly left alone. Bits of Russell’s story gradually surface. The child of a damaged, loveless home, his tireless exertions on behalf of the Wilderness Explorers are a form of compensation, his collection of merit badges a way to impose order on chaos. Carl and Russell, lonely at opposite ends of life, bond over the course of a journey that takes many unexpected turns, becoming a Werner Herzog Fitzcarraldo epic across the mountainous jungles of South America. And once he arrives, Carl’s dreamland isn’t all he imagined.

Pixar, the pioneers of computer animation, has excelled with Up, creating a world so well rounded that one begins to forget that the film is a cartoon.

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