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Easily the best summer movie of 2009, Up filled theaters with audiences happily enjoying the improved Disney Digital 3D projection system. With the rest of Hollywood in disarray and confusion, making fewer pictures and laying off their workforces, Pixar's forward-directed optimism and unbroken string of successes has shown the industry that a big piece of its future lies away from standard live-action filmmaking. Animated features don't have to run as many risks -- namely the high price of finicky, unpredictable star actors. If there's suddenly a need for a WALL-E sequel, his digital animation profile can be retrieved with the push of a button.
Buena Vista Home Video's 4-Disc Blu-ray / DVD / Digital copy package deals seem to be finding approval, as the home viewer is assured of playability on any machine -- standard-def homes aren't left behind. If the family consumer does buy a Blu-ray HD machine, he won't have to re-purchase the title -- the double-dip has already been dipped. The only hitch will come if the 3D lobby gets its way and a specialized 3D-HD home video player system is introduced. Unlike the earlier Coraline, no alternate 3D version is attempted here.
Seen from the outside, Pixar's approach to filmmaking looks like a filmmakers' Utopia. It's an independent outfit under the Disney umbrella: artists & writers call the shots backed by a best 'n' brightest animation and art staff, with software engineers capable of handling any problem. It's the most sophisticated image creation and delivery company yet. Pixar's revolving slate of directing talent brings a wealth of experience and wisdom to their original stories, which easily surpass most of the old Disney classics in sophistication and appeal. With the exception of a sequel or two they haven't repeated themselves.
Up is yet another Pixar gem that goes in a different and interesting direction, beginning with the Oz- like visual of a house suspended in the sky by thousands of ordinary helium balloons. Much has been written about the opening reel's background setup recounting the life of Carl and Ellie Fredericksen; it's simple and touching in a respectful way that movies seem to have forgotten. But the writers make Carl's mourning a major part of the story, a theme that is present all the way through, even in the lightest moments. The house represents Ellie and Carl's adventure-quest as his way of staying connected to her spirit. So this "children's movie" addresses themes usually associated with adult pictures. Up stresses the need to cherish memories and move on at the same time: "Now go have another adventure!"
Up references Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Lost World for its definition of adventure, recreating a fantastic vista from the 1925 silent movie (image on right) and reconfiguring Doyle's Professor Challenger into the intrepid explorer Charles Muntz, the pilot of an enormous dirigible on an obsessive 50-year quest for an exotic bird. Carl's last-ditch quest is to deliver Ellie's house to the fabled Paradise Falls; in doing so he experiences an adventure that satisfies his need to redress missed opportunities. His childhood hero is revealed to be a fraud, but it's okay, as Carl finds a new relationship with the neighborhood kid Russell.
The precisely drawn characterizations are warmly human, with endearing qualities that quickly penetrate our defenses. Even those with limited patience for precocious kid characters soon appreciate Russell's enthusiasm and courage. We recognize Ed Asner's gruff voice as Carl, and Christopher Plummer is an optimal choice for the twisted Muntz.
The film orchestrates a fine selection of supporting characters. Muntz's pack of hounds and the lovable dog Dug are wonderful characterzations, "real" mutts given the power of speech through ingenious translator gadgets. The psychology of the pecking order among the dogs is hilarious, as are the "Lost World" adventures with the female prehistoric bird that Russell names Kevin. Although we're told Kevin has no antecedent, we're convinced that her inspiration is the giant flightless bird in Ray Harryhausen's Mysterious Island. The way Kevin mocks Carl's efforts to shoo him away by fluttering his little wings is an instant laugh-getter. Also reminiscent of the Jules Verne story is the fact that Carl's balloon house is blown to its far-off destination by an enormous storm.
Carl, Russell and Kevin must fight for their lives when "Madman Muntz" becomes a geriatric version of Count Zaroff from The Most Dangerous Game. 1 This provides Up with great chase scenes and aerial struggles atop Muntz's dirigible and Carl's runaway house. In theatrical 3D the sense of height, hanging by ropes up in the clouds, was breathtaking. Incidentally, Up breaks the jinx on dirigible pictures. The enormous, unwieldy airships previously had a hard time looking real on film. Frank Capra's original Dirigible has amazing scenes with real Navy aircraft, and they still seem strangely unreal. In terms of animation, Carl's absurd flying house possesses a visual logic equally as "credible" as a floating air ship. Dozens of gags in the fanciful house are reminiscent of the wind-blown shack in Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush, the one that totters on the edge of a precipice.
Up doesn't try for huge revelations, opting instead for the satisfaction of an adventure with its own rewards. Kevin gets her security and peace of mind, Russell finds a combo buddy & father figure and Carl is rejuvenated as a man with a purpose. Ratatouille was for gourmets and WALL-E for Science Fiction visionaries, but Up is a wonderful adventure of personal discovery. The fall season of Oscar movies has just begun but Up is so far the most entertaining film of the year; with the expanded number of eligible titles this year it just might win Best Picture.
Buena Vista Home Video's 4-Disc Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy release of Up is a delight, especially in HD where one can fully appreciate the clarity and color of Pixar's work. The stunning audio tracks showcase Michael Giacchino's lively music score and the superb sound design ... the sound effects are sensational.
The extras on the disc are much more than an afterthought; viewers who have already seen the movie more than once may want to go straight to them. Although the DVD version also carries a selection, here's what's on the two Blu-ray Discs.
The feature disc begins with Partly Cloudy, the theatrical short that played with Up. Another short subject illustrates an extra chapter from the film that details the efforts of Dug to capture Kevin before the arrival of Carl and Russell. It's something like a Road Runner or Droopy cartoon, and very amusing. "Cine-Explore" is a picture-in-picture substitute for a commentary, a making-of with the film's co-directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson. Another featurette shows a number of alternate storyboard demises invented for the villain, Muntz.
The added Blu-ray extras disc has two trailers, a "Global Guardian Badge" Game that is sort of a geography quiz to earn a Wilderness Explorer merit badge, and a promo montage that shows off the personalities of the film's stars. Married Life, a special long featurette on the development of the Ellie and Carl back story montage is followed by seven other subject-specific featurettes -- none of which wear out their welcome. Directors Procter and Peterson are excellent hosts (everybody at Pixar seems to possess A+ telegenic appeal) for pieces that discuss the music, the dogs (a dog behavior expert contributes to this), and the development of the Russell character, who is based partly on a Pixar employee. The video footage of the recording sessions with young Jordan Nagai is priceless. Too natural to be directed, Jordan is instead coached to experience the necessary emotions to speak Russell's lines.
The most absorbing featurette is Adventure Is Out There. A dozen or so key Pixar creatives take a two-day helicopter and hiking safari to the actual Venezuelan jungle where exists the fantastic mile-high plateau-like stone outcroppings that inspired Conan Doyle to write The Lost World almost 100 years ago. They sketch and photograph and even watercolor their impressions while we take in the unearthly landscapes that indeed seem to be from a different time and a different planet. A friend employed by a Hollywood studio was impressed by Pixar's amazing international jaunt to charge their creative engines -- he remarked that his company doesn't even want to validate employee parking!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Up Blu-ray rates:
1. "Madman Muntz" was also the name of an electronics and car salesman in who started a 60s fad with "Muntz Stereo Pak" 4-track stereo tapes for cars. They were eventually supplanted by the much more successful 8-track tapes; both formats were wiped out by tinier cassette tapes. 4-tracks were soon regarded as the Edsels of home stereo fanaticism ... need I confess that Savant owned one?
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2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.