There’s a scene at the start of Up so shockingly real and seemingly at odds with anything remotely close to the notion of ‘kids entertainment’ that it makes you wonder if Pixar actually WANT children to ask their parents uncomfortable questions. It’s not that the content is shocking, it’s just not something you’d associate with Pixar. But then again, Up is probably Pixar’s most unconventional film to date, continuing a recent trend to make unconventional stories make total sense. Unconventional how? Well, the main character is an aged widower, his sidekick is a young cub scout whose parents are no longer together, they make friends with a talking dog and a female bird called Kevin. No, I am not kidding, and yes, Pixar have made another winner.
Up stars Carl; old, grumpy and alone after the death of his wife Ellie. The couple were bound by their desire for exploration, meeting as children and marrying before Ellie’s passing in their later years. In her absence, Carl constantly laments the fact that they never got to explore Paradise Falls in South America together, so he decides to attach hundreds of helium balloons to his house and turn it into a flying ship house….thing so he can make that dream come true. The house takes off, and all goes well for around a minute or two, before Carl realises an eager cub scout named Russell has accidentally snuck along for the ride. The odd couple set course for South America, making friends of a large rare bird christened Kevin and a clueless dog with a collar allowing him to talk named Dug. Carl and Russell run into trouble in the shape of Muntz, a famous aged explorer who needs Kevin, an ultra rare specimin of bird to prove his greatness to a world that has forgotten him. Carl and Russell aren’t so keen on this, and must escape Muntz’s clutches along with his pack of talking dogs to save Kevin.
Well. It’s not Cars, is it?
If that synopsis confuses you in any way, I wouldn’t worry too much. It’s the oddest concept for a Pixar film yet, but at the same time it’s grounded in the same sort of reality that made Wall-E such a highlight. Yes, there may be talking dogs but this is a very real world, perhaps the starkest vision of realism Pixar have ever given us. For example, Carl and Ellie’s relationship is shown in silent montage form at the film’s beginning, and we see them married, working and enjoying each others company. We also see a short clip of her and Carl in the hospital shortly after we think they’re ready to have a child, only for Ellie to be told that she cant. As with Wall-E’s strong environmental message, Up presents a story where bad things happen. Russell, Carl’s young sidekick is almost always all smiles and willing to explore until the conversation turns to the father that is never around to spend time with him. It hits home early and often that these are real characters with real problems, and whilst Pixar have always acknnowledged its older audience in some way in its films, they have never tugged at the heartstrings quite like this. That’s not to say the film’s overly dark, it’s just more real and a little more sad than we’re used to.
It’s also the most randomnly funny film Pixar have made. Dug is the star of the show; a hapless but happy dog with a collar that translates his thoughts into speech, Dug is voiced in such a confused but enthusiastic manner that almost everything he says and does is worth a laugh. As ever, the film is masterfully animated and makes full use of the jungle setting to produce some impressive environments. The story itself, whilst certainly odd and never really revealing its true objective until the half way point is a triumph simply because Pixar have again tried something now, and succeeded in creating a moving, involving and entertaining film. This is one huge film studio with universal appeal who seemingly enjoy taking chances on telling different stories, and that’s certainly refreshing.
However, it’s not Wall-E’s equal, not quite. Without spoiling anything, villain Muntz might perhaps be another realistic character in the shape of a man desperate to prove himself, willing to do whatever it takes to get his way, but Pixar have made him perhaps their most evil villain yet, and as such, unrealistic in a film of realistic characters (well, human characters at least). Perhaps, at times, this realism is too much to take in. Carl understandably cannot let go of his wife, but he doesn’t let us forget it for a long time, constantly mentioning her and bogging down some scenes.
But these are minor gripes. Pixar have continued their fine tradition of excellent storytelling and memorable characters whilst taking on some of Wall-E’s startling realism to create their most moving film to date. It’s still as funny, colourful and entertaining as any of the company’s classics, but it’ll move you more than most of the other films you’ll see this year.