In Pixar’s fab new feature Up helium balloons make a fitting metaphor for the big L word – BTW that’s love, not leprosy – but they also neatly symbolise the direction the studio has steered all-ages CGI animated movies: that is, up. With a 10-yip strike record of good features vs. duds, the Pixar whiz kids are rocking an unblemished history of critical and crowd pleasing hits, all of which have been layered in spit-polish eye candy artifice and have largely avoided the cringe-cliché elements of garden variety CGI animated multiplex fodder – such as cutesy talking animals, cheesy jokes and relentless pop culture references.
Some films may be better than others – Cars, for example, was a shade too Happy Meal for my tastes – but all Pixar flicks have embraced the idea that entertainment for adults and entertainment for children need not be mutually exclusive, and all have succeeded admirably on these terms.
Up is an adventure that begins when an old man ties thousands of balloons to his house and flies away. It is a film that offers plenty to transcend the age gap: there are ruminations on life, love and death, just as there are splashings of juvenile thrills ala flying objects, talking animals and colourful visual inventions. Predictably the latter consumes a larger portion of the running time and it’s the film’s gorgeous visual makeup that will linger longest and most vividly in the memory (especially if you see it in 3D).
Some moments are likely to catch viewers off guard, though, with their spirited blitheness, their briskly conjured emotional depth and their sheer watery-eye profundity, such as the film’s sublime opening chunk that charters the protagonist, Carl, from a young wide-eyed boy to a lonely and bitter old man (voice of Edward Asner). It’s a crucial sequence that establishes empathy and pathos with lickety-split speed and stays swimming around Carl for the rest of the picture, his past hovering above his head, vivid in the audience’s memory. Throughout the story Carl mutters and murmurs to his dead ex-wife; he broods and groans and grumbles and grouses; we understand however that underneath all that lies a beautiful person hardened by the years. Makes you wonder what Clint get-the-hell-offa-ma-lawn Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino would have been like as a young man. Once a grump always a grump, or only when confronted with the pain of ageing and the exuberant folly of yoof?
Carl longs to visit Paradise Falls, the holiday destination he and wifey always wanted to go to but couldn’t because, well, she died, and mid-house-balloon-flight he discovers a stowaway: a chubby motor-mouth kid named Russell (voice of Jordan Nagai) who wants to earn his scout badge for assisting the elderly. So a child’s rambunctious expedition is contrasted with an old man’s final journey and when they eventually land, in a bizarre desolate land, the script gets a fair whack more generic with colourful creatures, villains and, yes, talking animals, though how they talk is a bit of a novelty. The plot is very episodic, feeling too much like a random string of encounters packaged together, and the story takes a late-blooming focus on Carl and Russell’s mission to protect a rare and precious bird. Carl is a been-there-done-that world weary chap but he snaps all too quickly into hero mode, his motivations to risk life and limb for an animal feeling conspicuously under-developed. Criticising a character’s motivations in an animated movie with a premise as ludicrous as this might feel redundant to some, but that just goes to show how high Pixar has raised the bar.
Helium balloons are a great if obvious motif for that L word. For example it’s love, ladies and gents – shaddap naysayers and lemme get schmaltzy, just for a mo – that keeps us wanting to fly high, keeps us wanting to reach for something greater than ourselves. But love is also cumbersome: when times get tough Carl and Russell must lug around the house, itself like a gigantic balloon, and like everything else love faces a time limit: eventually the balloons will run out of helium.
Like the best all-ages animation, Up mingles serious concepts into whimsical situations and is consistently entertaining from first frame to last. Applying Adult Analysis like the kind perpetuated in film crit class, where one thing means another, where hidden messages lie encoded in visual structure, where Freud and Jung techniques snuggle into semiotic readings, isn’t a stretch at all with this pic – indeed, Up practically invites it. Could the same kind of analysis apply to Madagascar or Shrek or Open Season or Kung Fu Panda? Maybe, yeah, but it’d feel like a bit of a stretch. Up on the other hand makes many things – even over analysis – an absolute pleasure.
Up’s Australian theatrical release date: September 3, 2009 (Vic and QLD); September 10, 2009 (SA and WA); September 17, 2009 (NSW)