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Movie Review: Up (2009)

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In one of the best lines of 1997's As Good as it Gets, Jack Nicholson's character Melvin Udall utters to Helen Hunt's Carol, “You make me want to be a better man.”

Throughout their years of filmmaking, Pixar has had that exact same effect on me. I walk away from the films assessing my relationships and analyzing just what I can do to improve myself. I know some may scoff at my taking life advice from animated characters, but it saves me a truckload of therapy money.

As a writer, I find Pixar equally as inspirational. Their latest release Up hits levels of creativity and compassion that can force us to dig deeper into our well of superlatives and not rely on the usual adjectives to describe what transpires. It's not that the film reaches some saintly level of adoration, but rather it serves as a challenge to raise the game creatively.

The film does so not with a bang, but a whisper. The premise alone should clue you into that: a cranky man in his 70s (not totally unlike Udall), after losing his wife and lifetime love, leaves his little patch of Earth via a bouquet of balloons tethered to his house's chimney to visit their dream locale that had eluded them during their life together.

It's not the typical sort of Saturday afternoon matinee fodder for the kiddies these days. Yet, Up still floats far above maddening crowd, both literally and at the box office, creating yet another cinematic milestone for a company that seems to have an endless knack for exceeding already high expectations.

Carl Fredrickson, our protagonist, is joined by 8-year-old scout Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai), who mistakenly stows away under the house, not realizing that it would become airborne. This portly little ball of enthusiasm is the Dennis the Menace to Carl's Mr. Wilson. The boy looks beyond the crusty exterior in an impassioned desire to help the old man, of which Carl wants none.

The film does include the requisite anthropomorphic animal, but not in the traditional sense. Dug is a charismatic, devoted, bouncing sack of slobber under the fur of what appears to be a golden retriever. Dug’s thoughts are processed into a voice on his collar, and a premise that provides some of the film's biggest laughs, but also adds to its oversized heart. Dug may be a tad dim, but he is achingly loyal.

And while the film packs enough adventure within to justify its existence in the summer movie lineup, its emotional core is what separates it from the herd. Within the first 20 minutes, we are led through Carl's life with Ellie, from childhood chums to their twilight years in a montage destined to leave a basketball-sized lump in the throat of even the most hardened adult audience members. It also sums up Up – even though you build a lifetime of memories, it can all seem to whiz by us in an instant.

This is the studio's first foray into 3-D animation, but the magic occurs when Pixar is not trying to impress – a subtle float over a cloud line, a moment framed with our hero and an empty chair, formerly occupied by his wife. There are no paddleball shots, no whizzing rockets toward the audience, and it never feels as though it is a gimmick.

In fact, as outlandish as a film featuring a house tethered to helium party balloons should be, Up deserves its biggest praise for its authenticity. The bonds the characters develop, from Carl and Ellie's relationship, to the new inter-generational and inter-species friendships established, the film never strays from its compassionate core, without ever once pandering or feeling manipulative.

This is director Pete Docter's second directorial outing with Pixar (after peeking under the bed and in our closets with us in Monsters, Inc). And now that the makers have used the latest 3-D technology, they have created a film with all the depth they establish within their characters.

In a time at the box office marked by demographic-dominated films, created just as much by an advertising division as the filmmakers themselves, it’s also a triumph to see one that marches so proudly against the grain (summer box office heroes: Adam Sandler, Vin Diesel, Tom Hanks… Ed Asner?) and yet still connect with a large audience.

The only complaint I have is now that this is Pixar’s tenth release, they cause me to reshuffle my order with each new entry. Up is no different.

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