A Touching and Uplifting Journey

We’re a theatrical house. We go to much more live theatre than filmed cinema. Right now, we’ve doubled our film count from last year, taking advantage of the 4th of July weekend to finally go see “Up.” Wow. I’m touched. I’m impressed. I’m uplifted.

For those who haven’t taken the time to read reviews or search the web, you can find a summary of the story from Wikipedia. If even that is too much trouble, “Up” basically tells the story of the life of Carl Fredrickson: how he meets and falls in love with the little girl adventurer Ellie; how they grow together and how he promises that one day they will go to Paradise Falls; how life intrudes, and she dies before reaching there; how Carl fulfills that promise… and goes on an adventure of his own… and finds a new lease on life. During that adventure, Carl meets and learns to care for Russell, a Wilderness Scout earning his merit badge for helping the elderly. Assisted by the talking-dog Dug and the bird Kevin, they battle the adventurer Charles Muntz, the man responsible for inspiring the young Carl and Ellie… and the man who would be responsible for Carl breaking a promise.

Normally, I’d start off a film review by commenting on the cinematography — something I’ve grown to notice when I see a film because I’m so used to theatre. Guess what? I didn’t notice the cinematography or the camera angles in “Up”. That’s a good thing: it means the story overtook the artifice that film creates. Actually, I should take that back: it means the camera angles and positioning were so well chosen they served to enhance the story silently, rather than calling attention to themselves. That’s what good sound design does in the theatre, and that’s what proper cinematography does in film.

“Up” reflects the maturation of Pixar as a studio. Their first foreys were clearly children’s films: Toy Story, A Bugs Life, Monsters Inc., The Incredibles. These were successful because Pixar learned early on that story is what makes a movie (something live theatre has learned: music can’t save a show with a bad book). The stories that Pixar tells over time have become richer and deeper. In “Up”, Pixar tells what I believe is their most touching and most adult story: it is a story of what age does to a person, and what keeps a person going. At its heart, “Up” is a story about Love.

Nowhere is that seen better than in the opening sequence: the almost 10 minute segment where the life of Carl and Elle is told wordlessly. Yes, Wall-E was wordless, but this is a much more touching wordlessness. Kids may not realize what they are seeing, but adults will see their first romance and its playfullness. They will see how love forms and matures into a relationship. They will see how that relationship deepens to the point where words are not necessary, and how the bonds with one’s lover can transcend their death. We can see why Carl does what he does: the unthinking attack on the mailbox is an attack on the relationship, and how moving the house to Paradise Falls allows Carl to keep Ellie alive for him, to share the adventure. We also see how Carl moves Ellie’s spirit to Russell, and how that rejuvination of spirit rejuvinates Carl. If you can keep your eyes dry through this movie, you’re better than I. I truly believe the depth of the acting and the emotions conjured up by the animators would make this a worthy Best Picture candidate.

Pixar excels at characterization, and nowhere is it demonstrated better than this movie. In addition to the touching characterization of Carl (voiced by Ed Asner, the personification of grouchy (and when, oh when, will they release Lou Grant on DVD)), we have the eagerness and naivete of Russell (voiced by newcomer Jordan Nagai). But Russell isn’t just the eager scout — we learn the reason for that eagerness in pieces over the movie: it is Russell’s quest for approval from a father figure. Dug, the dog (voiced by Bob Peterson), captures a dog’s eagerness to please… and their ADHD (both the words “Squirrel” and “Ball” have new meanings). We see wonderful wordless characterization of Kevin, the tropical bird. About the only characture in the picture is Charles F. Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer): we know the surface reason for his maniacal desire to capture the bird, but not the real reason why he feels it is acceptable to disappear for a lifetime to go after it.

Surprisingly, I think “Up” would be a great product for Disney to musicalize. There is so much emotion in this film it cries out to be expressed in music. The scenery wouldn’t be that hard to realize, and the story would be timeless. This could be the first Pixar-to-Broadway transition. Disney Theatricals, can you hear me?

As with any Pixar film, there are also the small moments that delight. There’s the mailbox. The chairs for Carl and Emma. The knocks at the doors. John Ratzenberger having a small voice part (he’s been in every Pixar movie, it seems). There are the animation wonders: the clouds, Carl’s beard, the broken plates, the balloons. This is just a remarkable and touching film. Go see it. It will raise you up.

“Up” was preceded by a Pixar short: “Partly Cloudy”, a cute little piece about clouds making babies of various types, and delivering them by stork. It was imaginative, but predictibly episodic.

As for the previews we had:

  • G-Force. Tells the story of a guinea pig spy team put out to pasture in a pet story. Lots of poop jokes. Kids may like it, but I think it is too slight for adult. Then again, look at the business “Transformers” is doing.
  • Paper Heart. This looks to be a touching movie about a girl who doesn’t know what love is… finding love under the cameras. It has that independent feel, and might be worth seeing.
  • Shorts. A movie about kids, imagination, and wishing. I might watch it on Showtime, but the preview didn’t draw me in.
  • Fame. From the first notes, I was taken back to when I saw the original Fame in 1980. Seems to be roughly the same story, with updated music. I’ll remember the name.
  • The Princess and the Frog. Disney’s forey back into what looks like hand-drawn animation (but likely isn’t) — a welcome change if done right from the computer drawn stuff. This is also Disney’s first black princess. What will make or break this production is the story and the music: if the story is great and the music is integrated, it will succeed. If the music is background and the story exists to market the characters, it will fail. I’m encouraged by the trailer, but want to see the reviews first.

Upcoming Movies

This year is bringing a surfeit of interesting movies, so we may end up needing a full hand to count what we will be seeing. Our next cinematic trip will be for the new Harry Potter movie (opens 7/15).There are also two musicals of interest: the musical remake of Nine (opens 11/25), and the remaking of Fame (opens 9/25). Although I expect “The Princess and the Frog” (opens 12/11) to be good, I doubt we’ll see it in theatres unless it is our Christmas Day movie. Lastly, there’s a new biopic out on “The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story” (opened 5/22) (Disney’s well-known composer lyricists) that looks interesting, but we’ll probably catch that on the pay channels.

Coming next week: On Sunday, we’re off to Finland the Ahmanson to see “Spamalot”. Until then, as they say, the balcony is closed.