It’s been apparent for a while now that Pixar operates in its own artistic sphere, so when I call its latest feature, Up, a bit of a letdown, bear in mind that I’m comparing it with previous in-house masterpieces like The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Toy Story 2. The trailers preceding the show were for computer-animated films that promise little beyond one or two gimmicks and some predictable gags. My problem with Up is that for roughly its first third, the film delivers something genuinely, movingly unique, then lurches off in a commercially safer direction closer to those unambitious, gag-laden movies that want nothing more than to move toys and Happy Meals. That’s not to say Up is a bad flick — even at its weakest, there’s plenty of imagination and wit on display — but it is one that leaves you wondering what might have been.
Just as last summer’s Pixar epic, Wall-E, conveyed some pretty sophisticated science fictional ideas through purely visual means, so does Up use its beautiful cinematic palette to paint the love story of Ellie and Carl, Depression-era dreamers brought together by their vicarious longing for adventure and their admiration of a Lowell Thomas-style explorer named Charles Muntz. We then get images, in quick succession, showing their marriage, the thwarting of their hopes for parenthood, the little accidents that keep them homebound and unadventurous, the passage of years and finally, Ellie’s death and Carl’s descent into sour, dyspeptic old age, their lovingly refurbished house surrounded and overshadowed by looming condos and noisy construction work. It’s beautiful, heartbreaking stuff: imagery as pure and emotionally direct as anything out of Cocteau. And when Carl, cornered by circumstances, decides to break out by lofting his house with thousands of candy-colored balloons, it is a breathtaking moment — pure, childlike fantasy rooted in hard, adult emotions. Show me another animated film that not only has such ambitions, but achieves them with such artistry.
And then Up loses steam — gradually, because that first third has built up so much wonder and good will, but palpably as Carl floats his house all the way to South America in the company of Russell, an eager beaver scout determined to land his “assisting the elderly” merit badge. The long dreamt-of meeting with Charles Muntz goes drastically wrong, and suddenly Up becomes a grab-bag of ideas and gags. Talking dogs! Wacky looking animals! Aerial duels! The noisier and more elaborate Up gets, the farther it drifts from the sources of its charm.
Pixar leader John Lasseter is a self-proclaimed fan of Japanese animation genius Hayao Miyazaki, and he’s taken on the mission of marketing Miyazaki’s work in the U.S. I think Up would have benefitted from a closer study of Miyazaki’s storytelling. One of the qualities I appreciate the most in Miyazaki’s films is the absence of bogus conflict to keep plot gears turning. The storylines in Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro surprise and engage us without an eeeeee-vil villain who’s trying to take over the world, but when Miyazaki does stoke up conflict, as in Princess Mononoke, he makes sure the motivations are clear, so the clashes seem genuinely tragic. Yubaba, the witch in Spirited Away, is a hugely threatening villain because her malignity follows rules that are consistent but not immediately apparent, and the heroine has very little time to figure them out.
So when Muntz, the idealized image of adventure that sustains Carl’s dream, abruptly turns into a violent psycho, the switch feels forced and unbelievable — spurred solely by the need for a conventional action-movie climax. It is as though the Pixar crew toted up its original touches — grumpy geezer as hero, no conventionally attractive charatcers — and decided to cut off the supply of originality halfway through the picture. In other words, a cop-out.
Too bad. If Up had followed through on the originality and artistic daring of its opening scenes, we would be talking about something truly groundbreaking — a milestone in animation and film art. Instead, we’re left wondering about the road not taken. Or, in this case, the flight path not taken.