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Up

Disney/Pixar (May 29 2009), Walt Disney Home Entertainment (November 10 2009), 2 Blu-ray Discs plus DVD and Digital Copy, 96 mins plus supplements, 1080p high definition 1.78:1 widescreen, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 ES, Rated PG, Retail: $45.99

Storyboard:

78 year old balloon salesman Carl Frederickson longs to fulfil a life-long ambition in memory of his recently passed away wife and, when a care home looks like the only option for his future, he decides to chase the dream, lifting his own home high up into the sky with the aid of thousands of helium filled balloons and setting course for the almost mythical Paradise Falls…

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The Sweatbox Review:

Pixar’s latest computer animated feature may sound like an overcomplicated slice of sentimental drabness going by the story synopsis, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. The unprecedented tenth straight hit in a row from the Studio, the film is truly Up-lifting on several levels, not least the beautiful cinematography and wonderful, whimsical score which are the real standouts of the movie. By this point, audiences pretty much know what to expect from the Pixar brand, though they continue to surprise us each time out. With Up, however, the surprises are less impactful than those that have come before.

We were awed by talking toys, bugs, fish, monsters and, yes, even cars, but with each new film also came great innovation and the pushing of emotional boundaries, especially with the real human emotions of a family of superheroes, the fragility of those working in a Parisian kitchen, or a mute robot lost I space. Up does further these themes somewhat, but doesn’t seem like a step forward that the giant leap of WALL-E provided last year. The opening of the film is wonderful, and felt much more “traditional” in terms of past animated films than the usual Pixar approach, and I was reminded very much of old-school Disney from the 1940s rather than any other modern CG movie.

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It’s during these opening moments – an expertly crafted mini-movie in itself in fact – that we meet Carl and Ellie as children, the next few minutes of montage visually describing their lifetimes together in an honest and truly brilliantly beautiful fashion. It’s a sequence which has led the film’s critical praises and provides an emotional heart beat that keeps going throughout, even if some of the other elements wander off in more whimsical directions, which is where Up’s high levels slightly begin to deflate for me. As the 78 year old Carl, veteran actor Ed Asner is perfect, mirroring Carl’s visual appearance. He’s very much an out of place old man, a “square”, physically and emotionally, in a round world, as emphasized by Ellie and his later boy scout companion Russell.

But, ironically, and stylism aside, Carl is also the most rounded and really human character in Pixar’s history, a true personality that doesn’t just come from the lifetime montage we witness in the opening, but from his situation and boredom at life. The writing is particularly strong in these scenes too, revealing Carl’s desperation at the world, tailored to Asner’s vocals to instantly create someone we can identify with. Asner is the star of the show, forsaking the wisecracks of Freakzoid for a grumpy old man approach, but one that never feels stereotypical. For the first time in a long while there’s a fantastic meshing of animation and voice to create a true and honest character that feels like he could almost live right up the street.

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It’s true, of course, that it’s a brave move for a major Studio-funded film with commercial ambitions to put at its center an old man of 78 years old. But I felt that there’s a bit of smoke and mirrors there, since Carl is a very young and sprightly 78 year old, well able to lug around an air-assisted house, walk long stretches and engage in chase scenes without so much of a bruise to the skin. In voice and appearance he may be “old”, but in spirit he’s just as young as Russell, the Boy Scout who accompanies him on his adventures. You could say that this is an indication of the young at heart character and that Carl’s love for Ellie has kept the boy inside him alive, but that doesn’t explain how he can withstand the various knockabout scenes that a real 78 year old would find stressful at the very least.

Carl doesn’t seem to have had any specific military training to toughen him up so, for a balloon salesman, he’s a pretty resilient man; an early example of how Carl’s could really be any age comes early on when, in a fit of desperation at the real estate developers trying to move him out of his home, he strikes one of the construction people with his walker: though the legs are padded with tennis balls, this clearly has a bruising, if not more, effect on the construction guy, though minutes later, we see Carl smashing through trees, dangling over rocks, being chased by dogs and missing a few near scrapes without barely losing breath. This was just one of the minor shortcomings that kept dogging me throughout the film: Carl just looks and sounds old, but his adventures don’t have the effect on him that they might, and could have lent the film more depth.

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If Up fails in any way, it’s a general feeling of Pixarness, especially in the middle section of the film. Once we’ve experienced Carl and Ellie’s story and he’s up, up and away, he discovers Russell clinging onto his front porch for all he’s worth. Carl begrudgingly befriends the boy, who attempts to help him reach Paradise Falls to realise his and his wife’s dream. Director Pete Docter says the intention was not to cast a Hollywood brat, but Russell just wasn’t endearing to me at all, either shouting too much, being obnoxiously cute or underperforming as to sound hammy. In fact, once we land near the Falls, and as with WALL-E, Up heads off in a different direction than expected, especially with the introduction of several characters, including the long-lost Lindberg-styled adventurer Charles Muntz, once a hero to Ellie, and whose “Spirit of Adventure” motto is echoed from Lucky Lindy’s “Spirit of St Louis”. I can’t believe no-one else has noted the Kirk Douglas resemblance, especially close to the way he was caricatured in Tim Watts and David Stoten’s stop-motion spoof The Big Story, complete with chin dimple!

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Here he is voiced by another Hollywood stalwart, Christopher Plummer, and while he’s a less successful rounded human character than Carl, he brings a good deal of balance to the movie and pulls things back on track. Pixar aren’t known for their strong villains, but if anyone “gets” old-school Disney with a genuine authority at the Studio then it’s Docter, who also provided his Monsters, Inc. with a proper antagonist. It’s just such an ingredient that gives Disney, and now Pixar, films their real reason for being: no good having some lovely characters just talking and walking around an impressively rendered forest, they need to do something, and a well drawn bad guy gives not only Carl and Russell a task – to protect and rescue a rare Amazonian bird – but stops Up from wandering too far from its core, which happens, again as with WALL-E, around the half way mark, where the over-excitable new characters, including Dug the “talking” dog, loses a bit of focus and magic, tipping the balance away from Carl and to a more commercially observed leniency on comedy, some of which can become annoying.

So while it is a clever diversionary tactic for the dog’s threatening Doberman leader to have a high pitched voice (the result of Muntz’ collar invention, that allows the dogs’ thoughts to be relayed as audio, gone wrong) so as to initially not to be too scary for younger audiences, the voice is not different enough from something that might come from Alvin And The Chipmunks so as not to be a distraction, ultimately. But after this diverting second act, the latter stages of which almost return to the emotional beats of the opening, Up’s third act goes all out on an adventurous climax, hitting all the predictable and expected beats, but remaining exciting throughout.

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This is probably a good time to comment regular Pixar composer Michael Giacchino’s score, which is given plenty of room to shine out throughout. It’s a simply masterful score, full of primary themes for each character that resonate strongly, and Docter is never afraid to let Giacchino do the storytelling through his music, letting him take the lead on the opening montage and frequently filling the soundtrack with the central motif (a waltz, signifying Carl and Ellie’s connection), which is wonderfully lyrical and somewhat oddly infused with a French/European quality that just seems to work quite magically. With such an identifiable theme, Giacchino is able play the score as quiet and melancholy as he needs to, or as big and rousing as required, the orchestration booming like a real old-fashioned family movie, like the huge scope Jules Verne inspired epics of the 1960s.

There’s also a quieter recurring theme that plays, uncredited in the soundtrack notes, that sounds like a variation on old dance band number, the name of which I can’t quite remember, but its certainly the same tune, intentional or not, and the use of Carmen also makes me wonder if there are other intentional nods to other musical pieces. There are certainly many visual references to other films: Paradise Falls comes straight out of Willis O’Brien’s 1925 film of The Lost World, and the idea of a flying house will not be lost on those who know their Wizard Of Oz well. There are other brilliant little touches, too, like the Shady Oaks assistant’s shirt label sticking out at the back of his collar, and the delicate design characteristic that removes the nostrils from Up’s faces, or Carl’s face when he first discovers Paradise Falls is right in front of him: pure Frank Thomas!

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When it’s great, Up soars, striving to include new sights and go off into new directions, but it does so with an overly firm eye on its commercial ambitions; for all its originality, there’s a definite air of familiarity. As such it feels like merely the latest from the Pixar factory – always good as they are – rather than a truly great work of wonder, and I’m not fully convinced it builds on the achievements of WALL-E, packing in an awful lot of great material into the front half of the move, but becoming lost in focused during the middle before going for a safe chase and rescue climax. To his credit, Docter never reverts to the City, to see anyone worrying about Russell, which would have been an easy story trap to fall into, though the very end of this arc is a little too all neatly tied up in time for some very nice and clever credits that not only continue Carl’s story but highlight such contributions as story, shading and music in the photographic images.

So, although epic in scope and hugely entertaining, Up ultimately doesn’t feel like the next jump in progression from Pixar who, with their next release being the extremely safe Toy Story 3, might be in danger of feeling like they’re treading water. I wouldn’t really feel too safe putting my Oscar money on Up’s chances either, which in a strong year for animation I’m not sure has anything but the Pixar name to see off other sure-fire entrants as the edgier Fantastic Mr Fox and Disney’s grand return to traditional animation, The Princess And The Frog. Up is a worthy opponent to those and other films, but it lacks the consistency of some of those other nominees in waiting. As such, Up certainly comes recommended, but as a flawed masterpiece and only sporadically wonderful flight of fancy.

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Is This Thing Loaded?

We’ve all been impressed with Pixar’s offerings on the Blu-ray format so far, especially the Disney-branded Cine-Explore options that allows for additional on-screen production artefacts such as storyboards, concept art, live-action footage and more to play during a regular audio commentary mode, but Up – and the concurrently released HD upgrade for Docter’s Monsters, Inc. – goes one further, adding a second disc of high-definition supplements, the first time to my knowledge that any Disney title has included so much in this format, and, in this four-disc combo pack, we also get a standard definition, bonus-packed DVD plus a Digital Copy disc. While there are those – myself included – that might complain about the added cost, you’ll actually find that most online discounts bring this down to less than a standard BD release anyway, so although I’m no Digital Copy fan, the value (listed at $74 by Disney’s count) means a great saving.

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Usually with such combo packs, I’ll run down the features to be found on the regular DVD but, as with the Monsters, Inc. set, the excitement of two BDs is too much to wait for! Blu-ray Disc One begins with skippable previews, in HD, for Toy Story 3, the old trailer for The Princess And The Frog and Santa Buddies, plus from the optional Sneak Peek menu, the spine-tingling preview for Dumbo: 70th Anniversary Edition, Ponyo, the Disney animation Christmas special Prep & Landing (“the Figgie pudding hits the fan”), and a couple of Disney promo spots for the Movie Rewards program and other Blu-ray titles. The elaborate Main Menu is very nicely designed, not overly cluttered and serving up all the required info, plus a nicely animated red balloon as the icon pointer. A Screensaver option (in the Set Up menu) offers a way to prevent screenburn.

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Though not apparent at first, if you select Play Movie, you’ll be asked if you want to switch on the feature length Cine-Explore commentary, which features director Pete Docter and co-director Bob Petersen. The always interacting pair acknowledge the somewhat bizarre premise for the story and its origins, along with a never-ending barrage of excellent visual footnotes, including Pixar photos for the crew names dropped throughout, corresponding story sketches, concepts, production footage and more. These pictorial embellishments brings an already engrossing track to life, and it’s one I can’t wait to return to when the time pressures of reviewing mean I can sit, watch and listen as opposing to just dipping in and out on selected scenes. Simply one of the best commentary tracks in a long while: focused and creating a new appreciation for the main feature.

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Playing with Up in theaters, the short film Partly Cloudy (5:46 minutes) is included as is Pixar tradition. Primarily a test film for developing the look of the many clouds seen in the Up feature, this bright and breezy little short is not hysterical but quietly amusing nonetheless. A clear influence from Pixar favorite Dumbo is the character of a baby-delivering Stork who always seems to land the tough jobs, having to fly down not so much with bundles of joy but instead with an ongoing series of sharp-toothed or clawed animals! The animation is as good as always, but again the music reminded me of other cues, particularly The Beatles song Across The Universe which, intentional or not, is somehow fitting.

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The all-new original short Dug’s Special Mission (4:40m) comes courtesy of the main feature and might as well be an extended and completed deleted scene. Not satisfactory as a stand-along cartoon, Mission expands on the chase Dug and the dogs from Up were involved in as we met them in the movie. Introducing us to Dug in this way in the film wouldn’t have given us the surprise Carl and Russell get when they find a talking dog, but since this short ends with that very scene, it would be hard to show this off to anyone who had not seen the film, as with Jack-Jack Attack or the Mater short from Cars. Technical standards are feature-quality high, and as a disc bonus it’s adequate, even if it does feel like a deleted scene.

Adventure Is Out There (22:17) speaks to Docter and documentarian Adrian Warren about how and why the location of Paradise Falls was chosen for the film, and looks at the real Venezuelan “table top” mountains, with plenty of footage from the crew’s trip to the jungle to draw their influences for all the elements of Up’s environments. An Alternate Scene: The Many Endings Of Muntz is a five minute clip with Docter explaining the various ways in which the Muntz arc was ended. He attempts to Muntz some humanity by suggesting he’s not a villain per se, but the honesty is that he is perhaps Pixar’s best – and straightest – ever adversary, and the way he ends up is well in the classic tradition for such characters.

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Onto Blu-ray Disc Two, which is where all the BD exclusive material – all of it produced in HD – can be found, the first selection of which is a grouping of seven documentary featurettes. A Play All option would have been neat, but together these make up a good enough look at production, starting with Geriatric Hero (6:24), covers the origins of the story again, though focuses more on the creation of Carl himself, and his development as a character both visually and as a personality. Canine Companions (8:26) is just what’s you’d expect: a look at Muntz, his pack of crazy dogs, and the lengths the Studio went to in order to get their pooches’ behavior just right. Staying with Up’s characters, Russell: Wilderness Explorer (9:00) is a profile of Carl’s Boy Scout, from story artist Peter Sohn’s initial sketch of himself as a child, to Jordan Nagai recording the voice in the recording studio. Our Giant Flightless Friend, Kevin (5:04) appropriately looks at the last of the major Up characters, and the elements that went into its creation.

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A character just as important as the living creatures of Up, the Homemakers Of Pixar (4:38) explores the process of building a computer generated house from scratch, while Balloons And Flight (6:25) looks at how that house was pulled up from the street via the power of Carl’s balloons and flown through the skies to Venezuela, where he comes up against the might of Muntz’ dirigible. This is one of the more interesting pieces, again revealing just how in-depth Pixar’s crews go to creating plausible believability, where no detail is too intricate to explore and develop to perfection. Staying behind the camera, Composing For Characters (7:37) is the set’s only trip to the post-production of Up, to speak with Michael Giacchino about the inspirations for his beautiful score. There’s a reason why Giacchino is not only one of the most prolific but talented composers of our time, and his approach tells you all you need to know why.

Although Nagai and the Giacchino profiles touch on the soundtrack aspects of Up, I really missed anything substantial on the top-lining voice artists, especially Ed Asner and Christopher Plummer. The supplements continue with an Alternate Scene: Married Life, a couple of different takes on the opening montage as examined by the filmmakers (9:15). There are many good ideas in here (such as the building of the Fredericksons’ town into a city, and the presage of Kevin) as well as some that ended up in the movie, and although Carl and Ellie’s dynamic is decidedly unlike the final result, their love is still absolutely apparent and the storytelling just as lucid and touching.

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An Up Promo Montage gathers various commercial TV spots. Each are very short, from bumpers lasting just a couple of seconds to moments that come over as alternate or deleted takes on scenes from the movie. Most fun are the ones that break the fourth wall, or play with the characters steaming up or wiping clean our screens, though this is a very well cut together collection, a short film almost in its own right. Also from the promotional campaign are two Theatrical Trailers, lasting a couple of minutes apiece and presenting Up very much in the “loveable oldies” vein of such previous hits as Cocoon and Batteries Not Included. Only trailers #2 and #3 are presented: the initial teaser and any further Easter Egg-styled “hidden clips” must have flown away.

Lastly, the Global Guardian Badge Game is a BD-Live powered challenge where the player joins Russell to succeed at various tasks in order to gain points towards their scout badges. I’m nit really a games person, but this looks like it could be a good way for grandparents and their grandchildren of the family to spend an hour or so together. Also included as the standard definition DVD, featuring all of the bonus features from the first Blu-ray disc including the commentary, cartoon shorts and sneak peeks, and a Digital Copy contains the film as a standard definition file, playable on iTunes or Windows Media.

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Case Study:

Following the current Disney trend for Blu-ray combo packs, Up plays by the same rules, going for a treatment of the theatrical poster art surrounded by a blu-rimmed bordered slipcover. On a front cover sticker and the back of the sleeve, Dug’s Special Mission is given prominence among the other bonus listings, and inside the regular Blu-ray case are various promotions including ads for G-Force and Dumbo’s BD debut next February.

Ink And Paint:

Having also recently reviewed Docter’s Monsters, Inc. for this site, which looks absolutely phenomenal in high definition, Up already had some friendly competition before I ever inserted the disc! It comes pretty close to matching Monsters’ finely detailed look but doesn’t quite match it, which is more to do with the warm and sometimes intentionally soft approach to the cinematography than any lack of true sharpness. Up does offer unique sights, but is jungle-bound for much of the movie and so doesn’t have the visual appeal of entire Monstropolis world, for instance. It’s still very, very good, however, and the meticulously rendered stubble on Carl’s face by the end of the film is much more noticeable in HD than on the standard definition DVD.

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Scratch Tracks:

Offered in a DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track, Up is sure to raise your speaker set ups once or twice. It’s an adventurous film to be sure, and the more vigorous scenes, powered by Giacchino’s bombastic score, sound as multi-layered as the visuals. In this age of digital perfection, and considering this is a top of the line Studio picture, there’s really not a lot more to say than that, other than French and Spanish subs and dubs, plus an English DTS 2.0 track and Descriptive Video Service option, are also bundled in.

Final Cut:

With Up, the Disney-Pixar merger feels somehow complete, and it emerges as a film that is the best of both, recalling the sensibilities of the classic Walt era while being powered by state of the art techniques. Although I didn’t find the film to be as perfect as many others, I don’t mean to suggest it’s not vastly entertaining or well made, which it most certainly is. But after the double progressions of human relationships in Ratatouille and precise storytelling of WALL-E, Docter’s film struggles in its middle act with a series of brave ideas, but ones that the filmmakers themselves found troublesome to get right, and I wonder if some better solutions might have eluded them. However, it’s great family viewing and this Blu-ray set, though not quite the knock-out kind of DVD’s glory days, packs in all the basics and sees Pixar continuing to fly high.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?


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