Sunday, 11 October 2009

Review: "Up"

My experience of Pixar films has largely been positive, but the studio has by no means a flawless record with me. I've never been disappointed with their animation, as in my opinion when it comes to computer wizardry at the cinema, Pixar set the standard and are the ones to beat. The key, for me, to the success of Pixar's films is their ability to weave such emotion into the stories they tell, producing characters who you truly care about. Their last feature, Wall-E, is a prime example of Pixar doing this at their very best, as my review of that film explains. Any film that can make you care about a robot that looks like a box and his cockroach friend is a triumph. Ratatouille, which directly preceded Wall-E in the Pixar timeline, is almost the direct opposite. The animation, as I said before, was top notch, at times mind-blowing. But I just didn't care about the characters. I was never given any reason to do so.

So heading into the cinema to watch Up, I was unsure of exactly how I would be feeling the ninety or so minutes later when the credits rolled. In many ways, Up presents us again with a similar set-up to Pixar's past tales: Ratatouille gave us a rat and his unlikely companion, a young chef; Wall-E presents the eponymous robot and his insect chum; and in Up, our hero is a grumpy, elderly widower, and his companion a loquacious boy scout. Not the most obvious choice for a duo set for an adventure involving a floating house and the jungles of South America. But the way that co-directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson make the film work from the very first scene to the last, is by making you care - and care a great deal - about the characters being presented to you.

So, within the first twenty minutes of the film, Carl Fredricksen has not just been introduced to the audience as the film's main character, but through a beautiful segment cataloguing the life of Carl and his late wife, you know such a great deal about Carl and why he's so cantankerous at times that you can't do anything else but care about everything that happens to him for the rest of the film. In less skilled hands, Carl's initially futile attempts to save his house from a major construction company's wrecking ball would simply seem like straightforward comedy, producing a laugh and not much more; under the control of Docter and Peterson, you see it as an old man's staunch attempt to preserve his memories of the woman he loved his entire life, and still loves now. You still laugh, but you also understand more deeply exactly why it's happening, and have a reason to root for Carl every step of the way.

The supporting players receive a similar treatment. Boy scout Russell could very easily have been an incredibly annoying character throughout the film, but again the way his story is presented makes him loveable and, most importantly, believeable. Even Kevin and Dug, a giant bird and a "talking" dog respectively, despite clearly being primarily there for laughs, are given stories so that we care about them too. The characters wouldn't be there, of course, without the actors providing their voices, and thankfully these performances are all of a very high quality too. Funny and touching in the right measure and at the right time, truly bringing the computer generated sprites to life and making them feel incredibly real. The villain, Charles Muntz and his technologically enhanced pooches, are slightly less fleshed out and played more for laughs, but again they feel authentic and provide ample antagonists for our heroes.

Ultimately, Up rarely puts a foot wrong. Beautiful images, a fairly simple but highly imaginative story, and that intangible Pixar magic come together enchantingly. Things slow down at one point during the beginning of the second act, and the ending was ever so slightly oversimple considering the adventure that had preceded it, but these really are minor niggles in what is yet another triumph for Pixar. Fourteen years after Toy Story was first released (a fact that makes me feel very old), the master storytellers are still conjuring original and infectious modern fairytales for (and featuring) both the young and the old. The animation is unquestionably still flawless, but, most importantly of all, I still care a great deal about whoever (or whatever) Pixar decide to tell a story about. Up is a cinematic wonder, and I'm already looking forward to Pixar's next film.


No comments: