New on Blu-Ray, Up is the story of a grumpy old man and a stowaway child fleeing to South America via balloons tied to his house. Plain and simple, this premise would not have worked at any other studio. And yet Pixar uses this ridiculous setup to craft one of their richest and most compelling character studies to date. Now don’t get me wrong, the film is far from flawless, especially around the third act. But before we get to that, I have to discuss the first ten minutes.
Absolute perfection. A superbly crafted short film, this opening sequence introduces us to our lead, Carl Fredricksen, as a child. It then takes us through all of his dizzying highs and devestating lows, encapsulating an entire lifetime, and leaving the audience emotionally wrung out by the end. This sequence not only works perfectly as a stand-alone short film, but it also lays the groundwork for the story to come. It is in this sequence that we explore Carl and his wife’s love of adventure, as well as their specific goal to go to Paradise Falls in South America. Ending with the death of his wife, it is at this point that the story technically begins.
This sequence ranks as one of my favorite moments from any Pixar film to date, and that is really saying something. Interestingly, one of the features on the disc is an alternate version of this entire scene, demonstrated with storyboards. It’s completely different, and yet ends up getting the characters to the exact same places. Personally, I didn’t find the alternate version nearly as compelling, but I still found it fascinating to see a demonstration of how Pixar is able to manipulate story so effectively.
The end of this sequence finds Carl bitter and alienated from the world. He lives alone, clinging to his past; literally surrounded by an expanding world he is incapable of being a part of. Having just sent Russell, an overeager “Wilderness Explorer” seeking his badge for “assisting the elderly,” on a Wild-Goose chase, Carl ends up putting himself in the worst position imaginable. Through an unfortunate case of accidental violence, he finds himself being forced into a retirement home. Unwilling to comply, he decides to fulfil his dreams by tying thousands of balloons to his house and flying away to Paradise Falls, little realizing that Russell is trapped on the front porch.
Once in South America, the film dramatically changes tone. It becomes more of a comedic action-adventure, but one that never forgets character and motivation. There are chases, villains, and even talking dogs. One of these, Dug, is absolutely hilarious. While these dogs are able to communicate, they are still dogs, and Dug’s simplistic determinations become comedic highpoints of the film. Unfortunately, it is at this point where the film becomes much safer and more mainstream. This is also when I noticed how episodic the film had become. While there is constant character progression, the film begins to focus more on setpieces and sequences rather than on ideas.
As the film progresses, it also gets sillier and sillier. The villain of the film is Charles Munz, once Carl’s idol, and now his antagonist thanks to a fight over a rare bird (that Russell names Kevin). The talking dogs also really stretch credulity, and by the time we see them piloting planes for an aerial dogfight, I was really wishing they hadn’t taken the humor that extreme. While all of these moments could have worked as isolated bits, I found myself bothered by the inconsistency in tone.
It really took guts for Pixar to create a lead character that is a crotchety old man, but by putting the audience into his head at the very beginning, we are able to identify and see him as a person rather than a type. The second disc in the set contains several documentaries, and one of them explores this very concept. Entitled “Geriatric Hero,” this segment explores the ideas behind this creation, both mentally and physically. Other documentaries include looks at the vast array of talking dogs in the film, the creation of Russell and the constant evolution that his character went through, the development of Kevin the bird, the design of Carl’s house, the theme of flight found in the film, and a segment on Michael Giacchino’s brilliant soundtrack. It’s a solid set of documentaries, all compelling and creating an even greater appreciation for the finished film. All of these are relatively short, with none of them running longer than 10 minutes.
(Bonus clip from the DVD)
The longest extra feature is actually found on the first disc. Running just over 20 minutes, it’s a look at a trip to South America taken by several Pixar employees. This trip was the visual inspiration for the world Carl and Russell find themselves, and it’s absolutely fascinating to compare the real footage with the material they created. It’s a gorgeous location, and fascinating to see in reality.
Also included are two short films. One of these is “Partly Cloudy,” seen before the film in theaters. The other one is “Dug’s Special Mission.” This isn’t as funny as Dug’s scenes in the film, but the kids will still really enjoy it. Overall, Pixar has put together a great set for what is a great film. It’s not their best (that would be Ratatouille, in my opinion), but this comes really close. Pixar has set their own bar impossibly high, and I really hope that they keep their streak going. They have a lot to live up to.