A clumsy and often formulaic story drags Pixar’s new adventure down.
At the risk of stating the obvious, after last year’s masterful Wall*E probably anything Pixar produced next would suffer in comparison. With Up, the studio’s tenth feature film, co-directors and screenwriters Pete Docter and Bob Peterson have instead made a frequently uninspired, sometimes dragging jungle adventure that too often bears comparisons to one of rival studio Dreamworks’ dreary marketing centerpeieces. Too long in the middle and too predictable by half, the new film is the studio’s least achievement since the little-loved Cars. Sadly, it’s also seldom fun to watch.
To its credit, the film begins well, with the kind of sweet nostalgia that has infused depth and pathos to the studio’s previous The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and of course Wall*E (that robot casts a long shadow.) As a youth growing up sometime in the era of movie serials and dirigibles, plodding and uncoordinated Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner) dreams of following in the footsteps of his hero, the explorer and big game hunter Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). When he stumbles upon Ellie (Elie Docter), a neighborhood girl who shares his romantic wanderlust, the two kindred spirits grow up together and get married instead.
The montage showing their long and contented life together (despite their inability to have children) is the highlight of the film. Set entirely to Michael Giacchino’s lovely score and without dialogue, the sequence fills in a flurry of details with grace and sincere emotion (a good example: notice the subtle class distinction in evidence at the wedding) After Elie passes away and the home they shared becomes surrounded by high-rise construction projects, a 78-year old Carl attaches thousands of balloons to his house’s fireplace as a means of transporting it to Paradise Falls, the Venezuelan jungle (and home to Muntz) that was Ellie’s unrealized dream. The plan goes fine until Carl realizes the house has a stowaway in the form of chubby, cherubic Wilderness Explorer scout Russell (Jordan Nagai).
Despite Russell’s earnest bumbling, Carl gets the house close to the falls, landing just three days hike from the ideal spot Ellie wanted it to go. The trek through the surrounding jungle forms the second act, and that’s where the film gets lost in several different ways. Russell discovers a rare (and eminently merchandise-friendly) rainbow-colored ostrich thing that, unknown to them, is being pursued by the talking dogs bred by Muntz to patrol the jungle for interlopers. The old explorer, it seems, is determined to capture the bird after scientists dubbed his previous specimen a fake. Helped by the simpleminded but loyal hound Dug (Peterson), Russell convinces Carl to help get the bird to safety after Muntz and his dog pack turn on the hapless newcomers.
The chase from Muntz’s dirigible encampment and through the jungle, towards the bird’s – whom Russell names Kevin, for no discernible reason – sanctuary goes on too long, absorbing time that would better serve the story if used to flesh out the characters. Russell especially remains static throughout, all dim-witted enthusiasm and wide-eyed gusto that’s not as effective a counterpoint to the glum, rickety Carl’s grief-fueled determination as it needs to be. The product of a broken home and quietly despondent over an apathetic father, Russell in his own way is as desperate for escape as Carl. But in dumping his entire backstory into a single scene Docter and Peterson instead seem content merely to get his motivation over with. To quote Diana Rigg in The Great Muppet Caper, “It’s plot exposition. It has to go somewhere.”
Likewise the one-dimensional Muntz, who suffers for lack of depth in comparison to other Pixar antagonists such as The Incredible‘s Syndrome or for the kind of freewheeling snarl demonstrated by Monsters, Inc.‘s Randall Boggs. Muntz is ostensibly obsessed with bringing Kevin back to the world for his own glory, but doesn’t do much beside point and shout orders to his canine goon squad. Plummer’s rich voice, full of Old World patrician authority, isn’t really utilized to its potential as a result. Asner, an underrated character actor in the 70s and largely forgotten since the 80s, gives his performance a full range of emotions despite the repetitive situations into which Carl is flung.
Ultimately, all the running around has to lead somewhere, but a plot point involving Carl revisiting his battered house/ship for a last encounter with Ellie’s memory only leads in turn to more chasing, as situations dovetail tidily towards a conclusion. That’s fine, but it suggests Docter and Peterson know the film’s heart is its strength, and cash in on that warmth to move the plot forward. Worse, the chasing includes some pretty intense violence, including a beating given Dug by the pack’s domineering leader Alpha, fiery airplane collisions, and Muntz’s long fall to his death. Creating animation that holds adult audiences’ attention is a laudable goal, but getting there through the use of violence is an awful lot like cheating.
Fortunately the film comes to its senses near the end, with a lovely denouement that puts all the characters happily together while only seeming a little forced. The closing credits are clever as well, presented as a family album that, like Wall*E again, moves the characters’ story forward in a nice “bonus scenes” kind of way. Finally, the short film before the feature, a weird and high-concept fable entitled Partly Cloudy, is strictly hit or miss. I found it didactic and meanspirited, but the audience surrounding me seemed to enjoy it.
Up is the kind of film that you might love coming out of the theatre and esteem less each time you think about it. It is not Pixar’s best work, but given its many flaws in comparison to their previous accomplishments it’s hard not to think maybe they weren’t trying to outdo themselves after all. In this summer of disappointments, how sad to think that in making Up such gifted creators might have been aiming low all along.
- Michael Kabel