With recent stuff like Ratatouille and Wall-E, Pixar has set the bar so high for itself that no one bothers to hold others to its standard. (Like poor Dreamworks; did anyone see Shrek the Third?) The other side to this double-edged sword is that when Pixar releases a merely “good” movie instead of an amazing one, we are slightly let down. When the trailers came out for Up, the public reaction was bafflement over just what this movie could possibly be about. Something about the image of a house lifting up off its foundation by thousands of colorful balloons and a cranky senior citizen at the helm was bait enough for the hungry curiosity of the masses, and the prospect of seeing said image in 3-D didn’t hurt, either. The 3-D appeal was strong enough for us that when we arrived and were even seated in the theater before realizing that this was not a 3-D showing, we walked out, got rainchecks for a 3-D showing, and returned to the theater over an hour later. As for the 3-D, it was fun in parts, but one can see perhaps why 3-D movies died a quick death back in the 50s when Hollywood was experimenting with crowd-pleasing technology. At first a novelty, the law of diminishing returns sets in quickly, and most of the time the film seems overly dimmed from the glasses. With good enough animation (which Pixar has), it might not be necessary to go the 3-D route. Or maybe they just didn’t do a great job with the 3-D technology in this case.
As with previous Pixar efforts, Up employs shameless use of melodrama motifs. This is most powerfully and overtly evident in the long montage of the protagonist’s life (Carl, voiced by Ed Asner) together with his childhood flame and, eventually, wife Ellie. Ellie’s death at the end of the montage is reason enough for the filmmakers not to allow viewers to become too attached to the character. The target audience for this film is, in many ways, children. The early sequence’s end with Ellie’s death is so punctuated (with a slow fade-out) that one young viewer in our audience worriedly asked, “Mommy, is it over?” Truth be told, this sequence in the film is effective and well-composed. The sense of loss at its end may be too powerful for the rest of the film to recover the audience’s sense of urgency. The film negotiates the loss of Ellie by having Carl subsequently address both his house and his mailbox as “Ellie.” The destruction first of the mailbox and eventually also the house may be a lesson in the reality of death, despite attempts to deny it, but the film struggles to find ground on which to mourn; fitting, since Carl literally floats through much of the film.
Naturally, Carl needs human contact again, and his lack of social relationship since losing Ellie makes him ornery. Enter the character of Russell, whose lack of a father and love for exploring makes him the perfect candidate to whom Carl can reach out. Here is where Up struggled a bit, especially in comparison to previous Pixar films. The chemistry between Carl and Russell is not what we saw between Wall-E and Eva. A certain predictability slowed viewer interest in Up and caused the resolutions to seem rather inevitable. This is ironic, since the premise of Up defied predictability. The film’s embrace of overdone stereotypes, even in the confines of a really unique idea, robbed the big picture of its grandeur.
And not to get into gender issues again, but Up is remarkably phallocentric. The film kills off Ellie in its first act. All the main characters are males. One of the two friends that Carl and Russell make on their journey is a bird that Russell names “Kevin,” then finds out later that Kevin is a female. (For extra humor, they continue to call this female bird “Kevin.”) But Kevin only squawks – doesn’t speak at all. On the other hand, the other friend they make is a dog named “Doug,” who is equipped with a device that translates his thoughts into English. Doug, along with every other dog with this device, is a male. At the film’s very end, Russell’s mom makes a very brief appearance, clearly as the only source of stability in Russell’s life. But when Russell pours his heart out to Carl earlier, he says nothing of his mother; only that his father is never there for him. Are fathers that much more important than mothers? Even the bad guy in this movie (voiced by Christopher Plummer) is a guy…although that was probably a wise decision, considering. With few exceptions, this is a common theme in Pixar’s work. At least Toy Story, Monsters Inc., The Incredibles, and Ratatouille feature very traditional gender roles, and the others tend to do the same. This is simply an interesting side note. Undoubtedly, repeated viewings of this film will foster greater affection and appreciation for its subtleties. Canning the 3-D glasses will also help.