Magnified with the type of divine emotional majesty few animation spectacles could ever hope to reach, Disney/Pixar's "Up" is a triumphant masterstroke for the studio and their Teflon reputation. Declining the red-carpet invitation to manufacture mawkish, feebly scripted pathos, "Up" instead aims for and achieves a splendid merger of heartache and soaring spirituality. For their 10th motion picture, the Pixar squad has hit pay dirt yet again, only with "Up," the production team manages to weave together whimsy and poignancy in a visually dazzling, high-flying marvel of an adventure. Conceptually, it's not a trailblazer, but the execution is perhaps Pixar's most confident and irresistibly moving since their 1995 masterpiece, "Toy Story."
Reeling from the death of his beloved wife Ellie, Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Edward Asner) is caught in a mournful stasis, maintaining his curmudgeonly senior citizen lifestyle and his comfortable home while the outside world demands removal. Sensing his chance to pursue the life of adventure his wife always dreamed of, Carl uses the force of balloons to lift his house out of the ground and into the sky, traveling to South America with hopes to land near the jungle stomping grounds of his boyhood hero, adventurer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). Accidently onboard the house during takeoff is young Russell (Jordan Nagal), a pudgy, devout Wilderness Explorer member hoping Carl could help with the achievement of his "Assist the Elderly" badge. Now stuck together in the sky, the odd couple must find common ground when they settle at their destination, finding a dog named Dug who can communicate through a special collar, an exotic female bird Russell names "Kevin," and Muntz, who has sequestered himself inside a massive Zeppelin staffed by canines, hungry to prove his worth to a world that's shunned his accomplishments.
Directed by Pete Docter ("Monster's Inc.") and Bob Peterson (who voices Dug and a villainous Doberman Pinscher named Alpha), "Up" is a motion picture that's seemingly close to a cold death by asphyxiation just by the sheer measure of whimsy present in the screenplay and the juicy, vibrant animation. It's a high-wire act for the filmmakers to create something meaningful out of particularly fussy raw materials such as epic balloon flight, talking dogs, and chatty chubby children. Yet they manage the impossible. Docter and Peterson achieve a purity of intention that's jaw-dropping, ditching the weight of processed wit many Pixar productions feel obligated to engage to charge "Up" forward as an inspiring quest, underscored by crippling pathos, especially in the brittle tale of Carl and his devotion to his deceased wife Ellie.
A brief backstory meant to form motivation for Carl's unorthodox method of big city escape, the tale of Carl and Ellie is an authentically devastating recollection of love gained and cruelly lost to time, communicated brilliantly and wordlessly by the filmmakers, who use the gift of elegant CG animation and well-lubed Pixar character expression to lend the viewer a sobering entry point to Carl's stubborn psychology. It's a simple sequence of exposition, but there's something emotionally pure that Docter and Peterson unearth that's unsettlingly fragile and stunning, displaying lifelong attachment in only a few sensational cinematic steps. It's a tender sentiment that ripples throughout the entire picture, lasting as a long as it does through aching sincerity, not calculation. There are a few stirring beats that arrive during Ellie's remembrance montage in "Up" that I'm sure surprised even the filmmakers.
I'd hate to make "Up" sound like dour calamity. The film is anything but depressing. Once in adventure mode flying high in the sky, the picture settles in with Carl and Russell, having tremendous fun with their differences in age and appetites for curiosity. Handsomely voiced by Asner and Nagal, the actors instill the characters with gracious levels of comedy and dramatic dimension, making it easier to buy the numerous jumps between slapstick and conflict that increase as the film moves along. While I found "Up" to be incredibly touching, there are oodles of comedy to be had throughout the picture (scored with tremendous orchestral zest by Michael Giacchino), embodied by Dug's lovable pea-brained canine enthusiasm and Russell's lovable pea-brained adolescent determination, both captured in puffy, charmingly exaggerated character designs.
Truly, the AVC encoded image quality on "Up" (1.78:1 aspect ratio) is immaculate, doing justice to the lavish animation effort put forth by the Pixar gang. Colors are overwhelming at times, with the bright hues of the balloons and the deep, lush moods of the jungle showcasing a crisp, clean look that never feels overly processed. Shadow detail is impeccable, greatly enhancing the dramatic effect in the grand finale. Exterior sequences give off an outstanding sensation of movement, with astonishing detail making every little animated touch (heavens, those balloons!) open for inspection, while deepening the appreciation for the characters and their special behaviors. No digital hiccups were detected.
The DTS-HD 5.1 sound mix shows off exactly the type of range and excitement that Blu-ray is all about. Achieving a circular sound experience that's subtle when need be, the BD pulls the viewer right into the "Up" world. Surround response is wonderful, with flying sequences providing a thrilling, swooping atmosphere. Dialogue is clearly understood, finding proper balance with the lovely soundtrack. LFE comes alive during the action sequences, nicely delivering a bassy bottom to the suspense. The BD provides a perfect environment for every scene, be it in the heat of the chase or the quiet, reflective moments of mourning. A 2.0 track is also available, along with French and Spanish 5.1 selections.
English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are offered.
There's a feature-length audio commentary with directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, billed here as a "Cine-Explore" experience, which means a standard informational audio track, punctuated with picture-in-picture displays of concept drawings, production art, and in the case of Docter, old family photos. Again, this is a Pixar commentary, so it remains spirited throughout, with the filmmakers sharing anecdotes, amazement, and trading laughs as they walk the listener through the world of "Up." This is the first time I've encountered the "Cine-Explore" feature, and I must say, it's very handy, especially when the commentary participants have trouble articulating their thoughts.
"Adventure is Out There" (22:18) is a fascinating making-of featurette, exploring how the Pixar crew flew down to South America to get a first-hand glimpse of the tepui mountain ranges that inspired the adventure of "Up." Detailing lengthy travels times and arduous hiking challenges, the featurette captures the extreme research effort superbly. The payoff for the squad is incredible access to naturalistic details for the film, making the significant physical effort worthwhile. Easier is a visit to Angel Falls, another important landmark employed in the feature.
"Dug's Special Mission" (4:40) brings back everyone's favorite canine for an all-new escapade, acting as something of a prequel to the events in "Up." Agreeably animated and written, the short is a terrific treat. More Dug is always welcome.
"Partly Cloudy" (5:49) is the heavenly short film that ran with "Up" during its theatrical release.
"The Many Endings of Muntz" (4:56) sits down with the filmmakers as they explain how they tried several different ways to dispatch the villain of the picture. Seems losing a baddie takes an enormous effort.
"Geriatric Hero" (6:24) highlights the Pixar effort to capture old age in a believable fashion, even going so far as to observe residents of a senior center to snatch up the details.
"Canine Companions" (8:26) goes to the dogs. Again on the hunt for realism, the production met with an animal behavioral expert, who helped with Dug's characterization. We also meet the pooch in question, learning more about his origins and animated habits.
"Russell: Wilderness Explorer" (9:00) jumps into the development of the character, who went through several permutations before his final solidification as a doughy vessel of wonder. Bringing Russell to life is young actor Jordan Nagal, viewed here in recording booth footage, where the boy was carefully (and vigorously) directed by Docter to find the right pitch of juvenile behavior.
"Our Giant Flightless Friend, Kevin" (5:04) asks the burning question, just what is this creature? Well, the animators don't have an answer, but the featurette includes some time spent on an ostrich farm, where Pixar found the inspiration for the prized bird.
"Homemakers of Pixar" (4:38) illustrates the effort to turn Carl's house into a viable character, using the set design lend the home some personality.
"Balloon and Flight Dirigibles" (6:25) goes into classic aviation mode, exploring the need to marry the whimsy of the concept with authentic airborne highlights of a bygone era.
"Composing for Characters" (7:37) makes room for Michael Giacchino, who bestowed the film with an aching heart through his outstanding musical accomplishments. It's amazing to see this man capture an entire emotional arc in just a single note.
"Alternate Scene: Married Life" (9:13) reveals that the gut-wrenching sequence wasn't always so gut-wrenching. There was a more comedic take on Carl's love life, based around the idea that the shy boy would trade punches with his loved one. It's funnier than it reads, trust me. However, the tone was completely wrong for the film, leaving it here for comparison.
"'Up' Promo Montage" (6:00) collects all the little animated snippets from the marketing push.
"Global Guardian Badge Game" is a geography challenge, asking up to four players how many states/countries they can name in a certain amount of time. Educational and terrific fun.
And two Theatrical Trailers are included.
In a microscopic way, "Up" does succumb to the rigid Pixar screenwriting template blues toward the opening of the third act, hatching a break-up-to-make-up scenario for Carl and Russell that feels alien to the momentum Docter and Peterson have tenaciously built. It's a small objection within a film of enormous creative beauty and gorgeous cartoon buoyancy. "Up" underlines not only Pixar's artistic dominance, but demonstrates a rarely observed portion of emotional sincerity that rushes through the system of this picture with a near angelic grace.