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Up: 3D Edition

Disney/Pixar (May 29 2009), Walt Disney Home Entertainment (December 4 2012), 5-Disc combo pack with Blu-ray 3D and two 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, Rated PG, Retail: $49.99

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…

The Sweatbox Review:

Far from the “sporadically wonderful flight of fancy” that I labelled Up as in my original Animated View three years ago, Pete Docter’s whimsical movie continues to grow and grow on me to the point, now, where it remains among my favorites of the recent rush of animated CG movies. It 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 score which are the real standouts of the movie. Perhaps, however, my initial (very minor) resistance to the film was down to not feeling “surprised” enough by Pixar’s then-latest outing…

By the tenth time out of the gate, audiences had a pretty good idea of what to expect from the Pixar brand and with Up I simply felt that the expected surprises were less impactful than those 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 in space. Up does further these themes somewhat, but didn’t seem – originally to me at least – like a step forward in terms of cinematic storytelling that the giant leap of WALL-E provided the previous year.

But what do I know, right? Each and every time on re-watches since, the opening of the film continues to get me. It’s wonderfully emotional, feeling 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. It’s during these opening moments – an expertly crafted mini-movie in itself – 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 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 even now do 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 (yes, even counting the Scottish caricatures of Brave), 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 Freakazoid 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. 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 still feel that there’s a bit of smoke and mirrors going on, 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 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, the walker’s impact on the construction guy clearly has a bruising, if not more, effect on him, though minutes later, we’re seeing Carl smashing through trees, dangling over rocks, being chased by dogs and missing a few near scrapes without barely losing breath. This was perhaps my main complaint with Up on initial viewings, and although I can now take the film for what it is and enjoy it immensely, it’s still one of the shortcomings that rankles throughout the film: Carl just looks and sounds old, but his adventures don’t have the effect on him that they might if he were truly that age (how about making the thing with Asner for real and see how long he lasts?), and could in fact have lent the film more depth if he’d been a bit more vulnerable.

If Up fails in any other way, it’s in 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. Docter says the intention was not to cast a Hollywood brat, but again although I can now appreciate the character for who he is, Russell still just isn’t that endearing to me at all, either shouting too much, being obnoxiously cute or underperforming as to sound bored or simply hammy.

However, once we land near the Falls, and as with WALL-E, Up then 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 noted the Kirk Douglas resemblance at the time, 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! Here he is voiced by another Hollywood stalwart, Christopher Plummer, and while he’s a less successful rounded human character than Carl, simply because he’s essentially there to be a one-dimensional bad guy, 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 somewhat tangent-filled second act, the latter stages of which almost return to the emotional beats of the opening, Up’s third act goes all out in serving up a thunderingly good adventure climax, hitting all the predictable and expected beats, but remaining exciting throughout.

This is probably a good time to comment on regular Pixar composer Michael Giacchino’s score, which is given plenty of room to shine 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. Indeed, the movie on the whole recalls shades of Albert Lamorisse’s Le Balon Rouge, in which a lonely young boy’s adventures with a red balloon ends with him being rescued and whisked up into the air by a whole bunch of balloons so as to escape the local bully: not a million miles away from Up’s story thread at its rawest core.

With such an identifiable theme, Giacchino is able play his 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 cartoony-but-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! 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. Over time the film has obviously become even more familiar to me, and so some of these doubts have faded with each viewing, but there’s still a pesky feeling that it isn’t quite absolutely top-tier Pixar, 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. Originally, Up ultimately didn’t feel like a huge jump in progression from the Studio who seemed to push forward with each new film, but in hindsight it may well be the last great Pixar movie from their original breathtaking run.

The following films have been safe bets (Toy Story 3, Cars 2) and while I found Brave more entertaining than most, I also found it the least Pixar of the Studio’s films, and next out is another sequel, Docter’s own Monsters University, before he returns to giving us something unique and hopefully unexpected with a movie that apparently takes us inside the mind. I’m glad he’s being given the chance to push the boundaries: although it may still be something of a flawed masterpiece to me, Up certainly comes recommended – and as much more than just being “sporadically wonderful”…!

Is This Thing Loaded?

The primary reason for this new edition is to bring Up into line with Pixar’s Blu-ray 3D upgrades. As far as I can tell, all of the Studio’s movies are now available on BD with the concurrent release of Finding Nemo, leaving only A Bug’s Life and The Incredibles to receive the full-on 3D treatment (Monsters, Inc. has been announced for early next year). Unlike the Nemo set, which does come packed with some all-new extras, and more along the lines of some of Disney’s previous 3D upgrades such as Beauty And The Beast, Meet The Robinsons and Bolt, this Up collection merely adds an extra Blu-ray 3D disc to the pack to create a five-disc (and not four-disc as the front sticker has it) combo that essentially brings nothing new to the party except for the added dimension to the main feature.

Which means that, with the first disc’s 3D presentation covered below, the next two BDs are essentially the same as before, albeit with the first regular Blu-ray Disc’s Sneak Peeks having been updated to feature Monsters, Inc.’s 3D theatrical debut, Peter Pan Diamond Edition, Mary Poppins On Tour and Monsters University. The subtly-animated Main Menu is very nicely designed, not overly cluttered and serving up all the required info, plus a nice red balloon (aha!) as the icon pointer, and a Screensaver option (in the Set Up menu) offering a way to prevent screenburn. Pixar’s offerings on the Blu-ray always impress, especially when the Disney-branded Cine-Explore option is available (even if more and more recent titles bypass this for the cumbersome and useless second screen apps).

Luckily, and although not apparent at first, if you select Play Movie, you’ll be asked if you want to switch on the first of Up’s HD supplements, a feature length Cine-Explore commentary featuring 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 additional on-screen production artifacts such as story sketches, concept art, live-action footage and photos for the Pixar crew named throughout. These pictorial embellishments bring an already engrossing track to life, and it remains simply one of the most entertaining such tracks in a long while, creating a new appreciation for the main feature.

Playing with Up in theaters, the short film Partly Cloudy (5:46 mins) 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.

The all-new original short Dug’s Special Mission (4:40) 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.

Onto the second regular Blu-ray Disc, 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.

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 profile both 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.

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 not really a games person, but this looks like it could be a good way for grandparents and their grandchildren to spend an hour or so together. Also included is the standard definition DVD, featuring the Partly Cloudy, Dug’s Special Mission short films, Adventure Is Out There, The Many Endings Of Muntz and Docter’s Commentary, a nice surprise when the packaging indicates that only the two shorts are included. Some kind of art gallery would have been a plus, but there is the chance to spot some concept work during the other supplements.

Case Study:

Up’s Blu-ray 3D debut comes with the customary lenticular-fronted slipcover artwork that is now standard for Disney’s releases in this range, and does a very nice job of emphasizing the more subtle layers of depth. A sticker on the front announces a 4-disc combo pack, which may suggest the supplemental BD disc has been dropped, but a quick glance at the back of the sleeve confirms that it’s actually a 5-disc set with everything intact. Quite why Up isn’t designated the same Ultimate Collector’s Edition status as Finding Nemo and Brave isn’t clear, since it’s as feature-packed and encompassing as those sets…but there we are. Inside each of the platters get their own disc art, except for the enclosed Digital Copy disc, and there’s a Movie Rewards code insert.

Ink And Paint:

With Finding Nemo and, especially, the phenomenal looking Brave arriving on Blu-ray within the same timeframe, Up already had some friendly competition before I ever inserted the disc! It comes pretty close to matching Brave’s 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 doesn’t beat the visual appeal of the lush fantasy Scotland of the Studio’s more recent release, 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.

In the Blu-ray 3D format, Up is easily the best 3D experience I’ve had at home since Tangled, still for me the epitome of extra-dimensional animation. Famously Pixar’s first originally released 3D film, debuting in high style at the Cannes Film Festival with an audience of industry skeptics being awed by the presentation, this is the first time I have seen Up in this format, and I must say that it is a tremendous 3D experience. I’m not a huge fan of having to wear the goggles, but am a firm believer that the best examples of this kind of presentation are natively-rendered CG creations: Tangled really added to the overall look and feel of the movie, and in many ways Up does the same.

There is the potential for Carl’s flying home to look dislodged from its screen frame, essentially looking like it is hanging in space between the background and foreground and without having something locking it to the ground (something that affected my viewing of the Cheshire Cat in Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland and that somewhat does crop up in Nemo), but it’s a near-miss: the house somehow looks perfectly placed, the careful use of the camera and its numerous swoops managing to create the right amount of space around the airborne house so as to make this impossible sight look whimsically…um…plausible! More so than any other recent 3D revisit, Up uses the format to enhance rather than be slave to a gimmick – excellent!

Scratch Tracks:

Offered in a DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track, Up is sure to raise your speaker systems 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 as before.

Final Cut:

In Up, the Disney-Pixar merger that occurred early during the film’s production seemed to have found the perfect example of the kind of film to expect from the newly owned Studio, remaining a film that is the best of both worlds, recalling the sensibilities of the classic Walt era while being powered by state of the art techniques. It’s slightly unfortunate, then, that since then we’ve not really experienced anything nearly as original or invigorating as Docter’s film: before we had the double progression of human relationships in Ratatouille and precise storytelling of WALL-E; after have mostly been sequels, with the Pixar touch being transferred to more original projects at Disney Animation.

Up does struggle 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. But this is still great family filmmaking and the addition of top-flight 3D to this Blu-ray set packs in all the basics and more for the ultimate viewing combinations. The film, which I didn’t find to be as perfect as many others did on original release, has certainly become a well-worn favorite after subsequent viewings: I still don’t believe it is Pixar perfect, but it’s close, being vastly entertaining and extremely well made. One might have been hoping for an exclusive extra or two, but this new combo pack is the way to own it.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?


MAIN FEATURE
SUPPLEMENTS
VIDEO IMAGE
SOUND TRACK
OVERALL DVD


 

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