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Movie Review: Up (2009)

The latest wonderful movie from Pixar Animation, Up at last brings us an adventure that cheerfully and confidently goes against the grain of today's culture over-fixated on youth by presenting a hero who also happens to be a curmudgeonly old man. Most family adventure stories present their protagonists as typical, young, gung-ho personalities at times actually too callous to realistically deal with their surroundings, which is why the adventures themselves are often so considerably dumbed down. This movie, by centering on an older protagonist who has retained a nugget of adventurous idealism his whole life, allows the characters and story to have more real emotions and stakes. 

The film begins by introducing a wide-eyed, 7-year-old adventure scout named Carl Frederickson, who dreams of going to a lush place in South America called Paradise Falls. He then meets his match in a girl named Ellie, another young explorer who shares the same dream and is even more avid than Carl. This at first seems like the setup for a typical children’s adventure but then quickly and surprisingly segues into a lovely opening montage of their eventual courtship and later marriage. They save money to pursue their dream of traveling to Paradise Falls but everyday life intervenes with their savings, particularly as Ellie becomes sick in their older years. This montage that is so impeccably and movingly told without dialogue and serves as just the setup for our 78-year-old hero, Carl (Ed Asner), is really worth the price of admission all by itself.

Soon, Carl is left as a widower and is then threatened to be placed in a retirement home. So what does he do to honor Ellie’s memory and fulfill their dream without ever actually stepping outside his home? He tethers thousands of balloons to his house to float it to the sky. Everyone who has seen the poster or the previews already knows that but the sequence of the house making its ascent in its entirety is a pure, colorful marvel to behold on screen, particularly with the equally elegant score by Michael Giacchino, which perfectly captures that blithe feeling one gets when seeing a hot air balloon lift off the ground.

Just when Carl is about to relax by himself all the way to Paradise Falls, however, he suddenly hears a startling knock on the door and finds that there is a stowaway on board, an Asian-American boy named Russell (Jordan Nagai) who is aspiring to be an adventure scout not unlike Carl was when he was young. Carl, being the cranky man that he is, finds him a nuisance particularly after his earlier encounter with Russell and his unusual persistence about helping out an elderly man for a merit badge. Of course, Carl does not have the option to kick him out of the house (although there is a brief, funny fantasy moment in which he fleetingly entertains that thought).

Much more about their eventually very touching bond and the rest of their adventure I would hesitate to reveal, including the villain of the story that Pixar usually makes a wise point of not revealing (and it does arrive as something of a meaningful surprise in this one). What I will mention are some ingenious, inspired sights and ideas in the film. One is how they skewer the old, tired, silly cliché of talking dogs with some dogs Carl and Russell encounter. Audiences have complained for years at how dogs moving their mouths to talk like humans always look so ridiculous, no matter how hard they try to make it convincing with special effects (the truly awful Good Boy! comes to mind from several years back). This movie comes up with the brilliant, satirical solution of having collars around the dogs’ necks that hilariously act like ventriloquist sound devices that translate the dogs’ thoughts into human language.

Another is the huge, magnificent airship that Carl and Russell later end up in, which takes its small cue from some of Hayao Miyazaki’s films such as Castle in the Sky or Howl’s Moving Castle. All the tiny details including the methods of steering, the wings, and the ropes that tether the ship to its ballast are meticulously introduced to deliver all kinds of surprises in the climactic adventure. That it belongs to the film’s antagonist is crucial, as contrasting it to the protagonist’s vehicle symbolically signifies the disparate personalities they represent in balancing self-aspirations and reality.

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