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When Pixar first started doing this whole moviemaking thing more than a decade ago, it was clear its computer-generated imagery was beyond anything than anyone had ever seen. As the technology has evolved, the characters have become even more lifelike and realistic, but the other thing that has improved is the storytelling. It's more subtle and emotional, and with Up, they might have completed their most well-rounded, technologically amazing effort yet.
The film was written and directed by Pete Docter and Bob Petersen, who were responsible for Pixar's Monsters, Inc. (Thomas McCarthy, writer and director of 2007's excellent The Visitor, also contributed some writing content for the film). The focus of Up is on Carl (voiced by Lou Grant himself, Ed Asner). Carl grew up watching the adventures of explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), and one day while recreating some of Carl's adventures, bumps into Ellie. They become friends and eventually fall in love and get married, spending almost 70 years together. When she dies, he is alone in a house that is surrounded by all kinds of office buildings and 21st century urban sprawl. He refuses to leave his house, and when an incident occurs that forces him to abandon it, he creates a hot air balloon of sorts, attaching hundred of balloons to it to lift it from the foundation. And just where is he going with his new house ship? Paradise Falls, a beautiful area in South America where he and Ellie dreamed of going to but never went.
There's more to it than has been covered here, but Docter and Petersen conduct the story in such a masterful, emotional yet understated way that you can't help be in awe. There is a montage in the opening scenes of the film that shows Carl and Ellie as a couple, which includes the vicissitudes of daily life as well as other key moments of their life together. It's quite surprising, because Pixar has included moments that you wouldn't normally consider to see in one of their films, but they do it in such a way that it may have gone over the heads of their younger audience. You also see them attempt to fulfill their dreams and go to Paradise Falls, but things always seemed to get in the way. Much of the time with Carl and Ellie is set to a simple musical track and with no dialogue, and arguably ranks as one of the more touching sequences in recent film memory, let alone something from an animated production. It's very basic, poignant and if it doesn't get you involved in the story immediately, then you really have no soul.
Everyone and everything in the film is cast to perfection. Asner is outstanding as Carl; you can sense that he was exactly what Docter and Petersen had in mind as a prototypical grumpy old man. As Muntz, Plummer plays a convincing antagonist (Muntz was publicly disgraced during one of his adventures and vowed to go to Paradise Falls to redeem himself). Meanwhile, the boy that tags along on Carl's adventures, wilderness scout Russell (Jordan Nagai) is your typical nine-year old child with a short attention span. Other voiced roles in the film include a series of dogs that have collars that give them human voices, a sort of army for Muntz. While he has the more feared Doberman and a bulldog at his disposal, the slightly out of shape Dug (voiced by Petersen) is outcast and runs into Carl and Russell. These (and other) aspects of the film are so sweet that non-diabetics might fall into a diabetic coma. But you've bought into the story by then that any cynicism you have had been cast aside.
However, the final battle and general kerfluffle between Carl and Muntz is a little bit silly; after all, they're two geriatrics, which I guess is fun, if you want to add up their age and find out if it's better than your SAT score. However, the battle, and Carl's journey to Paradise Falls, is more than just watching Carl go through these experiences. These are things that he wanted to do with someone he loved dearly; a woman that, let's face it, was probably a little out of his league. A more cynical film would have looked at Ellie's regrets, but the regret is properly placed on Carl. He feels bad for not taking her to Paradise Falls so in lieu of that, the house they shared for decades is the next best thing.
It's that type of adventure, or even closure, that makes Up such a rewarding experience. It inspires us to be better people, and for those of us who can see a little bit of Carl in ourselves, it makes us be more spontaneous and in the moment. I'd imagine doing something like he did - thinking he was honoring his wife by finally completing something they wanted to do together - would make anybody happy, but it's the challenge of taking the next step to do it that's the hard part. Up isn't just a direction; for some, it's a way of thinking that many of us quietly envy.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Pixar gives Up an AVC MPEG-4 encoded 1.78:1 widescreen presentation in 1080p high definition. By now, we all know that these digitally made films are going to look excellent on Blu-ray, don't we? If not, then go out and grab Up on Blu-ray. You're going to see fine details like beard growth on Carl's square jaw line, a myriad of colors fly by a child's window when the balloons go by, and when we get to Paradise Falls, the views are breathtaking. One can even spot some detail and a slight multidimensional feel to the lush green forests. The colors pop off the screen, and everything looks as accurate as when I first saw the film. It's easy to run out of superlatives when you watch a Pixar Blu-ray title but let's face reality, Up is another in an already amazing looking catalog, the best yet.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless track also brings the goods. Dialogue is strong in the center channel, and the subwoofer is active for events like the house breaking from its foundation and some of the third act sequences. You'll even notice the sound the balloons make when rubbing against one another. There is plenty of directional activity during the opening shots, with construction and traffic noises in every channel, and when the house drifts lower into the mist and rock formations of Paradise Falls, the environmental noise is effectively immersive. For that matter, the whole soundtrack is active but not overreaching; everything sounds as if you're in the frame enjoying the experience. Not to beat a dead horse, but Pixar does another amazing technical job with their films.
No less than four discs! Wow! What's that, you say, it's not all content? Oh yeah. To briefly explain, Disc One and Two are the feature and extras for Up. Disc Three has the feature and extras, albeit on standard definition. As a related aside, the menus for both are slightly different on each version (the balloons are far more discernible on the Blu-ray). Disc Four has a digital copy of the film for your computer or MP3 device of choice. So, now that that's done, let's look at the extras, shall we?
Disc One is a BD-Live enabled disc (which has no content as of this writing) that includes a commentary from Docter and Petersen. You can watch it in the Pixar "Cinexplore Mode," which intersperses footage from drawing sessions, stills galleries and animatics into the commentary which is a jovial session. They cover their inspirations for the characters and for the stories in general. They talk about what some of the crewmembers contributed to the film and how it turned out, and they point out some trivia from the film (for the record, it took 10,297 balloons to lift the house in the movie). The track with the Cinexplore option is straightforward, but is also decent and fun. From there, "Adventure is Out There!" (22:17) looks at the crew's trip to Venezuela which provided inspiration for the Paradise Falls locations. There's a ton of footage of the illustrators climbing the mountains and traveling to the remote locations, and a historian talks about the unique qualities of the area. It's cool to watch this piece and see what this area is like, that's for sure. Next is the short that was included with the film in theaters, titled Partly Cloudy (5:46). It's cute, as is a new short for the disc titled Dug's Special Mission (4:40), which provides a little backstory to Dug before he meets Carl and Russell. "The Many Endings of Muntz" (4:56) looks at the different ways the crew considering killing Muntz before deciding on one, with a lot of scenarios and sketches to support them. A quick tutorial on downloading the digital copy is next (1:00), and an easter egg for the film (1:57) can be found here too.
Moving onto Disc Two, the big feature here is a seven-part documentary look at the film which for some reason, has no "Play All" function. The seven pieces run slightly more than 45 minutes (47:34), and covers the inspirations for the main characters in the film, including what they wanted to take from them and how they wanted to draw them. On the more animal portions of the cast, Pixar actually brought in a "dog whisperer" of sorts, and they videotaped various dogs to get an idea of how each dog would act in different situations. Some character backstory is even touched upon as well. More animatic and test footage ensues, and some of the postproduction aspects of the film (including Michael Giacchino's excellent score) are given attention. In between this and the material on the first disc, I think this covers most of what you might want to know about the film. But there's more! Next is an alternate sequence titled "Married Life" (9:15), where Docter and Petersen talk about a sequence with Carl and Ellie that they abandoned, but the sketches from it are shown off. A promotional film montage of key sequences follows (6:00), and two trailers from the film (4:11) complete the disc.
Up is one of the year's best films. Not just animated films, one of the year's best. There, I said it. It's a fun story that pulls on the heartstrings, and a technical gem that's well worth multiple viewings. Ultimately, I didn't feel the same sense of completion from this edition that I have from other Pixar Blu-rays, so I can't give it the Collector's Series label. However, Up gets a firm recommendation from me as one you've got to own and show your family this holiday season.