Saturday, May 30, 2009

Not all the way UP, but a change in altitude.

Warning: there is a SPOILER in the third paragraph. If you are troubled by spoilers, don't read the area within the red SPOILER lines below. Thank you.

To begin with, don't expect anything really new or spectacular in the realm of animation in Disney/Pixar's Up. There are the kind of increments of technology that you'd suspect, if you've watched the progress of CGI animation. To my eyes, they've gotten a lot more comfortable at rendering of fur on animals - at least some of the animals.

There is something unexpected in the first six minutes of the film. Everyone expected to see Ed Asner's character Carl Frederickson as a grouchy old man. But we first encounter him as a boy, someone who fell in love with adventure - but who only began seriously considering it when he met the love of his life, Ellie (Elie Docter).


I'm going to spoil the surprise of this part, because it must be discussed. We see Carl and Ellie growing up, finding a house, and keeping a dream - of going to South America to visit a mysterious place. Things keep getting in the way of their departure. And the biggest obstacle comes when an aged Ellie gets sick and dies.

As a man, I have biological obstacles that keep me from crying much. This scene got me to cry. And I sensed, in the packed theater of all kinds of ages, that everyone felt the same.

This event shadows much of the rest of the film. It gives Carl a depth and a meaning he wouldn't have posessed otherwise. It makes his grudging friendship with the young impetuous scout Russell (Jordan Nagai) critical to us.


But take it away...and you have a standard-plotted adventure. You have a stock villain in the disgraced adventurer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) and his army of raised-intelligence, voice-box-equipped dogs. You have predictable but well-planned fight and action sequences. You have a happy ending with "where are they now?" stills running throughout the credits.

This is a well-constructed story, even in minor details. The things that happens to Carl's helium-hoisted house are logical and important in the plots. Witness what happens to the simple hose on a reel mounted to his porch. There is more character humor - and slightly rougher character humor - with the characters, earning the film a PG rating. And although Christopher Plummer does the voice of Muntz, the character's appearance is a kind of combination of Kirk Douglas and Charlton Heston. That's a pretty devious character design.

But what I didn't perceive was the desire to tell a different kind of story. There are so many echoes of previous Pixar and Disney CGI films that I could almost predict some of the events.

Upon thinking about Up, I couldn't help but compare it to Disney's classic Sleeping Beauty. It was one of the last of the "Disney Princess" films supervised by Walt Disney. It wasn't profitable on its initial release. Its art style was more stylized than previous Disney animated features, in an attempt to make it look more mature than previous Disney films, but its story and characters were anything but original. Does anyone but a Disney completist even remember Aurora from that film?

Directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson (Peterson also wrote the screenplay) are Pixar alumni with films like Wall-E, Ratatouille and Monsters, Inc. to their credit. And maybe that's the problem. Maybe there needs to be a new vision of what Pixar and Disney can do with animation. It might be too much to ask for something completely dramatic from them; that's never been successful in American animation.

Up has been hailed by critics, and it will probably be Disney's most solid hit for the summer. Disney's The Princess and the Frog shows up later, and its innovation will be Disney animators unafraid to show a broad spectrum of black characters, not just the Muses from Hercules. (We didn't get the trailer for Toy Story 3 in my theater.)

I enjoyed Up, and so did the rest of the theater. And maybe it's unfair of me to be asked to launch from my seat and do a midair flip for every new film. But I sense Pixar settling into a rut, no matter how profitable, and I think they've got to break new ground. Or inflate a bunch of balloons and fly above the ground.