30 June 2009


Directed by: Pete Docter
Written by: Bob Peterson and Pete Docter
Full credits from IMDb

In the middle of Up, Pixar’s latest comic teartugger, a tubby boy (voiced by Jordan Nagai) recounts the scattered hours he’s spent with his largely absent father: “the boring stuff is what I remember the most.” The same is true of us, the audience: the high-tech animation, the dogs flying airplanes, the chase sequences that end at the edge of a jagged cliff—these aren’t what stick in the audience’s heads after the credits have rolled. It’s the tenderness, the old-fashioned stuff: the love, the romance, the characters, the drama. The boring stuff.

Too bad, then, that Up ultimately decides to rally against all things old. Although, at first, the movie seems to revere what has come before; in particular, like last year’s Wall-E, it has a crush on old movies, which it admires through allusion: the film opens with a newsreel, a la Citizen Kane; it features an old house in a storm that evokes The Wizard of Oz; and it includes a shot of a flying house passing by an apartment window that recalls King Kong, albeit with a wafting one-family in place of the ape. Above all, however, it’s It’s a Wonderful Life that weighs on the filmmakers’ minds.

Like George Bailey, Mr. Frederickson (v. Ed Asner), when we first meet him, is a young man with a rambling spirit and fantasies of adventure that he never gets to act on; stuff comes up, life and shit happen. He’s married to a female version of himself, a spunky zoologist and erstwhile tomboy; we meet her during a pitch-perfect opening montage, a ballsy sequence that includes what’s probably the first miscarriage sequence in a children’s cartoon, that brings us from their childhood meet cute through her death many decades later. (She is killed so quickly because this is a boy’s picture; the only major female character, a rare bird, is even assigned a boy’s name.)

During their marriage they buy a modest, fixer-upper dreamhouse, as do the Baileys, and dream of traveling together to a place called Paradise Falls, which sounds a little like Bedford Falls, but better. Up functions as a sequel to its forebear—a portrait of the banker as an old man, a widower in a crass world with neither respect nor reverence for the old, a world in which beautiful houses are surrounded by cold metal boxes and the elderly are shoveled into retirement homes. (In a lovely detail, a garish “Sushi Pronto” franchise stands across the street from Mr. Frederickson’s home.) To escape the senior center blues, our octogenarian hero retrofits his two-story colonial with infinite balloons—and quilt & shower-curtain sails—taking off into the stratosphere for the dreamed-of South American exploration he and his wife never could take.

When Up opens, it’s enamored with the bygone, with old movies and old men, but it isn’t naïve, either. When Frederickson arrives in Paradise Falls, he meets his childhood hero, an explorer, now impossibly old, who quickly turns out to be a mad and sinister scientist with a pack of talking dogs and a collection of helmets of those who have crossed his path before. “I finally meet my childhood hero and he tries to kill me,” Frederickson laments, proving that while some of the things from our pasts are worth preserving, others are not. Up advocates smartly for selective nostalgia.

At least, it does so for a little while, until it comes to deal only in extremes. By the end, the filmmakers have rejected sentimentality as a blanket rule; Frederickson becomes a veritable Buddhist, disposing of all of his possessions and, by proxy, his dead wife. Eventually, he even chucks their home. “It’s just a house,” he tells his chubby young friend. He rejects widowerhood for grandfatherhood because it’s time to refocus on the present generation, and every young boy (in a Pixar movie) needs the strong presence of a male role model. What that butterball needs is a papa, not a mourning makeshift grandpa.

Up begins as a shrewd film that suggests a need to protect the good parts of the past while discounting the bad. (God bless Donald Duck, vaudeville and variety.) But it ends with a moral discomfiting in its plain-and-simpleness: out with the old, in with the new. Then again, I suppose it’d be naïve to expect anything less from the pioneering computer animation company—the people responsible, more than anyone else, for killing the hand-drawn cartoon. Grade: B+

Watch the trailer:

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