‘Up’ soars in creative flight | AspenTimes.com

‘Up’ soars in creative flight

Manohla Dargis
New York Times News Service
Aspen, CO Colorado

In its opening stretch the new Pixar movie “Up” flies high, borne aloft by a sense of creative flight and a flawlessly realized love story. Its on-screen and unlikely escape artist is Carl Fredricksen, a widower and former balloon salesman with a square head and a round nose that looks ready for honking.

Voiced with appreciable impatience by Ed Asner, Carl isn’t your typical American animated hero. He’s 78, for starters, and the years have taken their toll on his lugubrious body and spirit, both of which seem solidly tethered to the ground. Even the two corners of his mouth point straight down. It’s as if he were sagging into the earth.

Eventually a bouquet of balloons sends Carl and his house soaring into the sky, where they go up, up and away and off to an adventure in South America with a portly child, some talking (and snarling and gourmet-cooking) dogs and an unexpected villain.

Although the initial images of flight are wonderfully rendered ” the house shudders and creaks and splinters and groans as it’s ripped from its foundation by the balloons ” the movie remains bound by convention, despite even its modest 3-D depth. This has become the Pixar way. Passages of glorious imagination are invariably matched by stock characters and banal story choices, as each new movie becomes another manifestation of the movie-industry divide between art and the bottom line.

In “Up” that divide is evident between the early scenes, which tell Carl’s story with extraordinary tenderness and brilliant narrative economy, and the later scenes of him as a geriatric action hero.

The movie opens with the young Carl enthusing over black-and-white newsreel images of his hero, a world-famous aviator and explorer, Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). Shortly thereafter, Carl meets Ellie, a plucky, would-be adventurer who, a few edits later, becomes his beloved wife, an adult relationship that the director Pete Docter brilliantly compresses into some four wordless minutes during which the couple dream together, face crushing disappointment and grow happily old side by side. Like the opener of “Wall-E” and the critic’s Proustian reminiscence of childhood in “Ratatouille,” this is filmmaking at its purest.

The absence of words suggests that Docter and the co-director Bob Peterson, with whom he wrote the screenplay, are looking back to the silent era, as Andrew Stanton did with the Chaplinesque start to “Wall-E.”

Even so, partly because “Up” includes a newsreel interlude, its marriage sequence also brings to mind the breakfast table in “Citizen Kane.” In this justly famous (talking) montage, Orson Welles shows the collapse of a marriage over a number of years through a series of images of Kane and his first wife seated across from each other at breakfast, another portrait of a marriage in miniature. As in their finest work, the Pixar filmmakers have created thrilling cinema simply by rifling through its history.

Those thrills begin to peter out after the boy, Russell (Jordan Nagai), inadvertently hitches a ride with Carl, forcing the old man to assume increasingly grandfatherly duties. But before that happens there are glories to savor, notably the scenes of Carl ” having decided to head off on the kind of adventure Ellie and he always postponed ” taking to the air. When the multi-hued balloons burst through the top of his wooden house it’s as if a thousand gloriously unfettered thoughts had bloomed above his similarly squared head. Especially lovely is the image of a little girl jumping in giddy delight as the house rises in front of her large picture window, the sunlight through the balloons daubing her room with bright color.

In time Carl and Russell, an irritant whose Botero proportions recall those of the human dirigibles in “Wall-E,” float to South America where they, the house and the movie come down to earth. Though Docter’s visual imagination shows no signs of strain here ” the image of Carl stubbornly pulling his house, now tethered to his torso, could have come out of the illustrated Freud ” the story grows progressively more formulaic. And cuter. Carl comes face to face with his childhood hero, Muntz, an eccentric with the dashing looks and frenetic energy of a younger Kirk Douglas. Muntz lives with a legion of talking dogs with which he has been hunting a rare bird whose gaudy plumage echoes the palette of Carl’s balloons.

The talking dogs are certainly a hoot, including the slobbering yellow furball Dug and a squeaky-voiced Doberman, Alpha (both Peterson), not to mention the dog in the kitchen and the one that pops open the Champagne. And there’s something to be said about the revelation that heroes might not be what you imagined, particularly in a children’s movie and particularly one released by Disney. (Muntz seems partly inspired by Charles Lindbergh at his most heroic and otherwise.)

But much like Russell, the little boy with father problems, and much like Dug, the dog with master issues, the story starts to feel ingratiating enough to warrant a kick. OK, OK, not a kick, just some gently expressed regret.

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