Just a day ago, I was thinking that the problem with 3D technology is that filmmakers apply it with a roller; everything's gotta take advantage of the extra dimension, and with so much to look at, the eyes end up with nowhere to focus. Of course, the people at Pixar are much smarter than I am, and they figured this out with enough time to master the format with Up, their adventure following Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner), who decides to fly to Paradise Falls in South America with the help of thousands of helium balloons. The effect is so natural and organic, it singlehandedly takes 3D from being an expensive theater gimmick to being the perfect complement to smart filmmaking.
Pixar's bright idea is a basic sense of perspective that other 3D movies seem to ignore. The farther away things get from the camera, the less dimension they exhibit, and usually, only the things director Pete Docter and co-director Bob Petersen want you to be focused on are in full-blown 3D. For WALL-E, Pixar notably hired cinematographer Roger Deakins to come in and take a look at their lighting setups, and they've continued the concept here (using someone who is, aggravatingly, not credited as the director of photography on IMDb but was in the movie's credits). It works marvels: more often than not, despite a dash of stylization and vivid colors, Up looks like it was filmed on the streets of the real world, and the 3D is the element that really sells it. Clouds float in front of the house. Carl stares headlong into a fog that rushes straight at his face, and it peels away to reveal a shock. Even the balloons themselves are a marvel; Pixar used to design their films to contain show-stopping finales, but now they spread their wizardry throughout a film, and it's awesome to see the thousands of balloons rise up from behind Carl's house as he takes off.
In fact, there's a lot of things that are slightly different about this Pixar outing. Pretty much all of Pixar's previous films have been comedies, and Up has more than a handful of great jokes (the best being an art reference in the third act), but much of the humor here is more about smiles and chuckles than out-and-out belly laughs. Humor is easy in animation, and perhaps when John Lasseter and his team were starting out, they felt that being funny was an easy way to win over the audience. Now, they're obviously past the point where it's necessary, and their movies have become more and more dramatic. If you're the kind of person who cries in the theater, the first ten minutes of Up may require more than a handful of Kleenex, and you'll want to save some for later as well. The PG rating also means Up won't pander to children. Not that Pixar ever has, but along with the wistful and sad moments, there's some mildly intense violence (there's even a spot of blood!), and some character conflicts seem surprisingly tragic. If anything, the movie overcompensates for these elements slightly, as Pixar constantly devises ways to make sure nothing too awful happens to anyone.
What hasn't changed about Pixar's skills is their phenomenal understanding of human and animal characteristics. Carl's stowaway, Wilderness Survival Scout Russell (Jordan Nagai), is a wonderful character, from his Humpty Dumpty-shaped design to the note-perfect blend of the character's actions to Jordan's voiceover, and Carl himself makes for a wonderfully emotive protagonist, with his block-shaped head that conveys happiness as easily as grumpiness. The real standouts, however, are Dug the Dog (Bob Peterson) and Kevin the Bird. The animation on these animal companions is about as good as animation gets; it's often funny in a merely observational way, it says things about the characters, and it's realistic. Although Dug talks and Kevin is twelve feet tall and rainbow-colored, it's clear the Pixar team studied their own dogs and birds for years to get the mannerisms of these creatures as accurate as possible. Surely, they all have a future being as iconic as Buzz and Mike Wazowski.
Ah, but what about the movie? Admittedly, this is a fairly technical review. I went into the movie not expecting to be blown away: for some reason, the movie's three trailers didn't dazzle me (and I only saw each of them once, so I had few predefined notions about the film). But the surprise of watching Up, even if you have seen the trailers, made the movie more enjoyable: there's a lot of things about the movie that aren't hinted at in those ads (I can't vouch for the TV spots), and I wouldn't want to give them away, and aside from a little predictable plotting (Carl's eventual conflict with Russell, both in timing and execution, feels predictable), I don't have any real complaints. Just know that Up is another blast of classic Pixar magic, even better than last year's already-magnificent WALL-E, and that on top of making a great movie for all ages, they've opened new doors with 3D technology. Grab your aviator goggles and head to the theater, and prepare for a journey into a new dimension of the movies.
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