Thursday, May 28, 2009

'Up' brims with wild delights

Carl Fredericksen is 78. He's also one of the main characters of a new animated movie from Disney via Pixar. Building an animated movie around an elderly man is amazing enough, but the unusual qualifies of "Up" don't stop with Carl's age. The movie also deals with death and grief and how Carl ultimately responds to losing his wife and life partner. Maybe that's why "Up" was chosen as the opening-night film of the recently concluded Cannes Film Festival. Watching the movie makes you wonder -- at least a little -- whether the guys at Pixar aren't bolder and more imaginative than many of the folks making live-action movies.

None of this is to say that "Up" is a downer: It's not. The movie's prescriptions for Carl are delightfully preposterous; they're also an expression of the kind of imaginative dreaming that movies always have done better than any other medium. Sure ''Up" has it sad moments, but they're played against a background of adventure and cartoonish action that's both down-to-Earth and wacky.

Before we go any further, let's deal with the matter of 3D. Yes, "Up" can be seen in 3D. That's how I saw it. Beautifully and richly colored, "Up" doesn't need 3D. It has interesting characters, enough action to please kids, enough seriousness to keep adults occupied and an overall spirit that can be sweet without turning saccharine. 3D? I don't think I'd have enjoyed the movie any less without it.

The story begins by introducing us to a Carl as a child. "Up" then proceeds to chronicle Carl's life -- from a boyhood in which he fell in love with the idea of adventure through the mundane but touching aspects of his marriage to Ellie, his childhood sweetheart. I watched in disbelief as directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson bravely used a series of vignettes that, among other things, showed the couple losing a baby and remaining childless. The directors even take us through Ellie's hospitalization and death as an older woman. These scenes from a marriage represent a nifty bit of animated storytelling, but we quickly realize that what we're seeing is only a prelude.

Within a matter of minutes, the bright-eyed boy from the movie's opening becomes another gray grump, an old man voiced by Ed Asner. Enter eight-year-old Russell (Jordan Nagai), a Junior Wilderness Explorer who's looking to earn a merit badge by assisting the elderly. I won't burden you with plot details, except to note that the movie trades its early realism for a healthy chunk of fantasy.

Appalled by the fact that he's being shipped to a retirement home, Carl ties hundreds of helium-filled balloons to his house and uproots it. His plan: to float to Venezuela so that he can land on top of a mountain at majestic Paradise Falls, a place he saw in a newsreel as a kid. Of course, Russell winds up taking the trip with Carl.

From that point on the movie opts for comedy and adventure: Not only do we get flying houses, we get talking dogs, a giant zeppelin called "Spirit of Adventure," wild cartoonish action, a giant bird named Kevin and a villain worthy of all the hisses we can muster. Baddie Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) wants to capture Kevin and bring the bird back to the U.S. Muntz is introduced in the movie's opening scene, which shows young Carl at the movies. He's watching a newsreel about Muntz. It seems that Muntz -- a dashing adventurer -- was denounced as a fraud when he brought the skeleton of a giant bird to the U.S. By capturing Kevin, Muntz hopes to vindicate himself and silence his critics. Of course, he'll stop at nothing to make his point.

If all of this suggests far-fetched adventure, you've got the idea. As it progresses, ''Up" becomes zanier, but both Russell and Carl retain personalities that are grounded in reality. Carl gradually sheds his desire to keep things just as they are, a desire that's embodied in his devotion to the house that he and Ellie renovated and which he can't let go of. Russell's a kid and nothing more, but there's something about his sincerity that touches Carl and helps him relinquish his hold the past. This all comes across as more sweet than profound, but credit "Up'' for not shrinking from recognizable emotions.

If little ones don't totally get the movie, they probably will be swept away by its physical comedy and by characters that aren't always far removed from a cartoon universe. Look, I don't want to oversell "Up," but its combination of imaginative daring and emotional realism took me by surprise. "Up" leaves you feeling a little sad and a little happy. But most of all, it leaves you feeling grateful that you felt something. Nice work, Pixar.

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