Old Man and the SkyCHRIS KNIGHT
If critics were the grumpy, movie-weary churls some people imagine, we’d be stalking out of Up muttering how someday, someday, Pixar is going to make a film that doesn't work. But we’re human, and most of us practically skipped from the theatre, feeling like we had helium balloons tied to our ankles.
That was reportedly the mood at Cannes this year (where the 3-D movie opened the festival) and now it 's everywhere.
Although the film is about a codger named Carl Fredrickson (79-year-old Ed Asner), it opens in the 1930s with Carl as a freckle-faced youngster enthralled by newsreel footage of a zeppelin-flying explorer in far-off South America. Carl is soon equally smitten with Ellie, a little girl with similarly adventuresome leanings.
What follows is a wondrous, wordless montage as Carl and Ellie grow into teen sweethearts and then husband and wife. Like James Stewart and Donna Reed in It's a Wonderful Life, they fix up a dilapidated Victorian house and move in. They scrimp and save and make do. Family should follow, but Ellie can't have children. The nearest they get to South America is with jobs at the zoo, where Carl sells balloons. Still, they grow happy. They grow old. And then she dies.
If the film ended here it would be a perfect mini-movie; also, there wouldn't be a dry eye in the house. Thankfully, Disney/Pixar collaborations last longer than the shorts that precede them, and so we move to the present day. Carl now shuffles around the home he used to share with his wife, sleeping on one side of the bed, eating from one side of the table, his existence conspicuously cut in half.
Feeling suddenly crowded by helpful Boy Scouts, greedy land developers and pamphlets for retirement homes, Carl decides to take to the skies, which is when Up delivers its next flawless moment. When thousands of balloons launch the dwelling skyward, the image is pure magic, unequalled since Dorothy's farmhouse (and audiences) were swept up in The Wizard of Oz. 3-D might not be the gasp-inducing effect that colour was to that movie, but it offers a richness all the same.
There's a law in screenwriting: Any incorrigible oldtimer must be paired with a wideeyed waif who will eventually corrige the old codger. In Up the role goes to Russell (firsttime actor Jordan Nagai), a Junior Wilderness Explorer whose merit-badge collection needs only the "assisting an old person" button to be complete. He was trying to do just that when the house took off for South America.
Russell's squashy features look as though someone had dropped the components of a snowman's face into a bowl of pudding. As such he is the perfect physical foil for Carl, whose mug combines the lines of Asner, Spencer Tracy and a mailbox. His bushy white eyebrows seem to grow out of square-rimmed spectacles that should make viewers slightly less self-conscious about their 3-D glasses.
Back on the ground -- or nearly so; Russell and Carl drag their floating house behind them as though in a painting of Sisyphus by René Magritte -- things really take a turn for the weird. Russell befriends a giant rainbow-coloured bird, which he names Kevin, although Kevina might have been a better choice.
They also befriend -- or, truth be told, are forceably befriended by -- a dog named Dug, voiced by Up's writer and co-director Bob Peterson. Dug and his canine friends wear electronic collars that allow them to speak their minds; it turns out that doggie brains have about as much depth as kiddie pools. (Also, the gadget sometimes makes them sound like bad Google translations.) When outfitted with the "cone of shame," Dug says, "I do not like the cone of shame," a matter-of-fact remark that comes across as oddly hilarious.
Japanese scientists actually invented a talking dog collar in 2002 (it's called the Bow-lingual) but in Up it's the product of a reclusive explorer (if that's possible) voiced by Christopher Plummer. One month younger than Asner, Plummer makes this possibly the oldest acting duo since Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon starred in The Odd Couple II.
Plummer's character and Kevin the giant bird have a coyote/roadrunner relationship; that and the talking dogs provide a great deal of the film's humour. But like WALL-E, Cars and -- let's be honest -- every other Pixar film ever made, there is as much joy to be found in the plot's absurdities of circumstance as in any slapstick or clever dialogue.
Carl, grave and steadfast, is an unlikely candidate for a balloon adventure, though he does manage to remain a housebound, armchair traveller even as he journeys to the ends of the Earth. And when he is forced at one point to jettison ballast, director Pete Docter expertly takes the metaphor of a life weighed down by memories, possessions and obsessions, and makes it real. These are the moments that make the film soar. Ellie's death in the opening reel may have got you down, but there's only one way to go from there.
Chris Knight. "Old Man and the Sky." National Post, (Canada) 29 May, 2009.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post.
Chris Knight writes for the National Post.
Copyright © 2009 National Post
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