Commentary 01 Jun 2009 07:31 am


Everyone’s giving a review of Up, so how can I resist after promising as much last week.

- I have to hand it to Pete Docter and Pixar; UP is a very good film. However, there are challenges for this viewer.

The first ten minutes are nicely flawless and set up the story well. Then, after Carl is widowed, the film settles down to earth and gets a bit mundane. Once Carl goes to court, the film shifts, turning into a cartoon and losing its lyricism increasingly as the film moves on. More and more, the imaginiative and unlikely ideas are thrown at us, and the story becomes less and less believable.

There’s a nice, expedient and acceptable way for Docter to cut short the flight and get them to their South American desitination. It’s smart, but it left a big, “Huh?” for me before I moved on. That’s when the dogs enter wearing their jokey voice collars. I wonder if it might have been better for them to keep the dogs without voices. That would probably have offered fewer gags but a bit more logic.

Michael Giacchino‘s score is excellent. The main themes sound a bit like music from a Doris Day film. Light, bubbly and “50s”. It brings the airiness the film tries hard to maintain.

There are several refernces to King Kong (the 1933 version). It occurs when they’re entering a terrain that seems a bit remniscent of the native village in Kong. Lots of repetitive drums right out of Max Steiner’s original score. The most obvious reference, of course, is those dogs in bi-planes trying to shoot down Russell. A couple of the jungle terrains also seem to be pulled from the earlier film.

But then, the film includes dozens of references to other live action films: the opening seems right out of Citizen Kane, the villain is named Charles Muntz (sounds like Mintz) and looks like Kirk Douglas, Carl looks like Spencer Tracey. There are many more, but I’m not sure if they’re there for any purpose other than “fun”.

There’s some animation in the film that’s quite fine , but there’s also some not-so-good animation there. Lots of slipping and sliding in walk cycles; lots of weightless characters (an old cgi bugaboo.) However, it’s miles above most of what I’ve recently seen and does give me a bit of hope.

Up‘s credibililty, for me, roams far from reality with a number of points including: a super humongous zeppelin (where do they get the petrol to run this thing?), talking voiceboxes on the dog collars (not only is the villain a great adventurer, he’s also a brilliant inventor able to read dog-thoughts and build this eccentric machinery in the wild), dogs flying bi-planes with dart-shooting machine guns, and many other bits of business just turn the film into a not-very-believable cartoon.

Of course, all this is a byproduct of the principal idea – a house being lifted by hundreds of balloons. It’s certainly impossible, but we all came into the theater knowing this to be a basic premise, and we agreed to accept it before sitting down. However, I’m not sure we were buying into a lot of other cartoony ideas after sitting through that excellent opening that ultimately seems to be from a different film. It’s as though Bambi had Bugs Bunny as a friend, not Thumper, and the film kept trying to squeeze them together for us.

I’d hoped to accept the entire premise as a conceptual metaphor. Though, I don’t think Docter, in his unspooling of the story, allows us to take this approach to the imaginative but cartoony ideas, so I had to ride with it at face value.

Perhaps this is all irrelevant to most viewers; the film is quite enjoyable while watching it. I did find myself stepping in and out of the story as it progressed, thanks to lapses in credible moments. I also found the film a bit tiresome at about the 2/3 point. Like Wall-E when they’re chasing around in space, inside and outside the spaceship, this film has a dangerous chase inside and outside a zeppelin, on and off the balloon house. They came to the precipice at least four times too many and escaped every time.

I’m glad for what they gave me in this film, but I guess I’m the curmudgeon who hopes the “Action” scenes will be a tad more plausible in screen stories. And I guess I also wish for a little less “Action” in those films. All that running about over and over again get tedious.

But make no mistake, I do think UP is a very good film . . . just not the great one it might have been.


By the way, you have to check out Lou Romano‘s site which is filled with brilliant pre-production art for this film.

29 Responses to “Up”

  1. on 01 Jun 2009 at 11:34 am 1.john said …

    cosign on all this, but I was also somewhat frustrated by the film’s somewhat transparent philosophizing (“don’t live in the past”, “don’t let your belongings hold you down”) and ham handed psychological metaphor (Kevin the Bird as mother figure, Doug the Dog as child, hefty round boyscout evoking wife’s spirit of adventure, Muntz the bad guy as castrating father). When so much thought is clearly given to every nuance of a film, I expect more complex subtext.

    That said, it’s a must see; though perhaps not as good as Wall-E. It’s half a spectacular film and half a good film.

  2. on 01 Jun 2009 at 11:48 am 2.joecab said …

    “lots of slipping and sliding in walk cycles”

    Really? I didn’t even know this was possible in modern CGI … isn’t everything tied together by some algorithm that keeps track of the physics involved?

  3. on 01 Jun 2009 at 11:55 am 3.Tim Hodge said …

    While I can’t totally disagree with the leaps in logic the film took, I found myself a willing participant to jump the gaps so I could enjoy the fantasy.
    Perhaps it’s just because I am at an age where Carl’s regrets are hitting me squarely between my tear-stained eyes.

    And, yes, the metaphors are not far beneath the surface. But it is, after all, a family film and intended to be understood by a wide demographic.

    My biggest frustration is that now I have to re-write a screenplay I have where the climax is a fight on top of a hot air balloon.

  4. on 01 Jun 2009 at 12:26 pm 4.Michael said …

    Joecab, the most obvious sliding character was KEVIN. Watch his feet as he moves about, especially into the distance.

    Tim, just make the scene completely yours and don’t worry about anything. Surely, we’ve seen a fight atop a hot air balloon, but yours will be the one that works.

  5. on 01 Jun 2009 at 4:04 pm 5.keith lango said …

    Good points overall, Michael. Your observation about Up trying to be two things at the same time shows just how much of a struggle it is to come up with something that is simple and clear, but not simplistic.

    Mr. Hodge– keep the balloon, brother. Just try to keep the ‘omigosh-he’s-gonna-fall-to-his-death!” moments to 3 or less. ;)

  6. on 01 Jun 2009 at 6:44 pm 6.stephen said …

    I found the dissonance between the mundane and imaginative an extremely appealing motif in this and many other pixar films. I think the film being both wacky and mundane strengthened its message considerably.

    We are shown that Carl is an old man. He is fragile. People bleed, get hurt, and can die in this world. And people have emotions like love.

    But then we see that imagination and adventure still exist–this is exactly what carl wants and what he goes after. But rather than being totally consumed by the imagination and adventure he seeks, Carl learns to appreciate the mundane things–the relationships, the connections, the boring parts like love and friendship–rather than be consumed by the wacky things his antagonist obsesses over (glory, fame, talking dogs).

    And how is it that animals with talking dog collars are less wacky than just plain talking animals?

    Aside from all that, I bought it all. The consequences always seemed very real, no matter how wacky things got.

  7. on 01 Jun 2009 at 10:33 pm 7.Mac said …

    I must say, I was turned off by all the talking dogs at first also, but then I sort of forgot about that and started enjoying the film again. Of course the first 15 minutes were the best by a large margin, but I still enjoyed sitting through the whole thing and in fact found it more enjoyable than Wall-E. I have to agree that it did ask slightly too much of the viewer in terms of outlandishness but what cartoon (and blockbuster I suppose) doesn’t these days anyway?

  8. on 02 Jun 2009 at 5:55 am 8.Cameron said …

    I can’t disagree that Up is guilty of lapses of logic, but none of that detracted from the film in the least for me. In fact, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The cartoony sequences greatly strengthened the more serious moments. It provided counter-point in these characters and their emotions that I just ate up. Besides, reducing the awesome size of that hot air balloon would have been a horrible crime.

    Funny how what you thought prevented this from being great was a primary reason for why I thought it WAS great. In the contest between entertainment and believability, I see no contest. I certainly don’t require realism in animation.

    I can see we have very different taste in action scenes as well. I thought the action in both Up and WALL-E did a very good job of developing these characters and making us care about what happened to them. I loved that Up kept throwing the characters toward the brink of disaster, as it made the climax that much more satisfying. Give us MORE of this story driven action, I say, just as long as it stays story driven.

  9. on 02 Jun 2009 at 6:14 am 9.Bill Benzon said …

    It’s as though Bambi had Bugs Bunny as a friend, not Thumper, and the film kept trying to squeeze them together for us.

    Brilliant line.

    Hmmmmm . . . . What I find interesting about your review is that, after the opening affirmation you point out all the raggedness that led, say, Mike Barrier to pan the film. I happen to be with Mike on this one, but that’s not what interests me here. How is it that we give such very different weight to different factors.

    Oh, toward the end, Russell close-ups began to bug me: How’s he breath without nostrils? But as long as you’re going to design your character like that, why not go for a gag? Heck, could’ve stuck Russell between two of those silly talking dogs and he could have hosed them with mucous flying out the ears!

  10. on 03 Jun 2009 at 11:38 am 10.Daryl Boman said …

    I’m always on the fence whether or not to actually go to the theater and see a new movie or wait for the DVD.
    You guys have me leaning towards the DVD!

    UP! Seems like the above average PIXAR family type entertainment and that’s all it has to be. Because, in Hollywood, the box office is king.

  11. on 04 Jun 2009 at 6:44 am 11.Elliot Cowan said …

    Carl often looks like a guy in a suit (a Carl suit, like in a Disney theme park).

  12. on 04 Jun 2009 at 8:14 am 12.Dave Levy said …

    I think when Pixar focuses on the point of view of an older character, such as Carl in UP, there is a great chance to go somewhere interesting that a straight up for-the-kids film can’t. The INCREDIBLES had this mojo too, with its mid life crisis character Mr. Incredible. I see the importance of adding other elements to the mix (younger points of view), but, in the case of UP I wished those adventure/cartoony elements were as strong as the emotional core that came from Carl.

    I could not get past the dogs flying bi-planes. In an earlier scene we are shown that they can barely pour champagne. But, then again, a dog chef was able to make a fine restaurant quality meal. Conflicting ideas that might not seem important to dwell on, but these are some of the things that add up to break the reality of the movie, whether the viewer realizes it or not. Its why you leave the theatre and think the film was “good” instead of “great.”

    The real sad moment was the short played before the film. The cloud design totally worked against the animal designs in that I felt as if I was watching a rear projection effect from an old movie. They weren’t operating in the same space. When a cloud handed a baby to a stork, it was not a convincing pass off.

    But, worst of all, the short had nothing to say. It was a story without a point, a punch-line, or a purpose. When you think of all the talent and time that goes into one of their shorts, its very surprising to see something this average. Students at French CGI animation schools pump out gems with a fraction of the resources Pixar has when making their shorts.

  13. on 04 Jun 2009 at 7:42 pm 13.emily said …

    Agree, agree, agree.

    Davy Levy: Have most Pixar shorts had anything to say? Certainly not most of them (that I can think of). I think Boundin’ is their greatest short film, personally, and it did have something to say. The others range from enjoyable to “ehh, whatever.”

  14. on 04 Jun 2009 at 8:27 pm 14.Heather said …

    “…the dogs enter wearing their jokey voice collars. I wonder if it might have been better for them to keep the dogs without voices. That would probably have offered fewer gags but a bit more logic.”

    Sigh. Number one, this _is_ an animated film, so I don’t see why dogs with voice collars is any more “logical” than talking robots. I always wondered why talking cars and robots are believable & cool (especially to guys) but the same people piss & moan about talking animals.

    Personally, I’ve never had problems with animated films that centered on talking animals or even talking animals interacting with human characters. In the real world, animals have emotions & souls. Machines don’t.

  15. on 04 Jun 2009 at 8:58 pm 15.Michael said …

    Heather, the problem isn’t that the dogs have collars that enable them to talk. The problem is that the film makers started making a film built on a reality with slight fantasy then turned it into a fantastic film with no grasp on their own reality. The dogs not only have collars that read their thoughts, they also cook and serve dinner, fly planes and act like they’re talking dogs anyway. Why not just have them talk? The filmmakers haven’t figured out a reality for the film and expect us to accept anything they serve us. Sorry, it doesn’t work for some like me.

    By the way, you shouldn’t generalize. Not all “guys” believe talking robots or talking cars is in any way interesting.

  16. on 04 Jun 2009 at 9:50 pm 16.Tom Sito said …

    I spitballing here, but the reference to Charles Muntz may be a nod to an early local TV personality in LA named Earl MadMan Muntz. He had an electronics business, retail made televisions and was a character on par with Tom Carvel in NY. Muntz once commissioned a commercial from Oskar Fischinger.

  17. on 05 Jun 2009 at 2:55 am 17.emily said …

    I think your comment was directed towards “Heather,” not me!

    Just sayin’!

  18. on 05 Jun 2009 at 7:26 am 18.Michael said …

    Sorry, Emily. You were right and I re-addressed that earlier comment.

  19. on 06 Jun 2009 at 5:39 pm 19.Frank P said …

    UP offered the opportunity for an OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE/JACOB’S LADDER bit: Carl really suffers a fatal heart attack in the courtroom, and the balloon adventure is his dying fantasy. Big pullback from Carl’s cold, grey face at the end, a sheet is thrown over him, the house is bulldozed, etc.

    It’s too uncommercial to realistically expect PIXAR to do that. But, wouldn’t it be cool if it was an extra ending on the DVD…

  20. on 06 Jun 2009 at 5:48 pm 20.Michael said …

    To be honest, I almost expected some such ending. I gave up as superhero Carl ran around the zeppelin and defeated his arch enemy in the sky. By then, I was convinced that the Pixar-lite people took the film seriously.

  21. on 07 Jun 2009 at 2:40 am 21.Mitchel Kennedy said …

    I will accept your argument about too much action, and too many near-fatal cliff exposures. I didn’t mind the movie having this “Bambi and Bugs Bunny” type of story, but I’ll accept that as an argument as well.

    I do however, disagree with your points about the fast trip to South America, the dog collars, and the giant zeppelin. I think the thought of “where did he get the petrol” is nit-picky, and it shouldn’t be what one is focusing on while watching a movie. It’s a fantasy-film, so why can’t these things happen? Extraordinary things always follow the real-life downer stuff in a fantasy film (Wizard of Oz, NeverEnding Story, Narnia).

    The opening of the movie was fantastic — but had Carl stayed in this serious “believable” world, and had we followed him to the retirement home, I’m certain that the movie would have gotten far more dull, far sooner than 2/3 the way through.

    I think that people should be more accepting of a cartoony idea, more accepting of a unbelievable adventure, and more accepting of mixing those things with something dramatic and true to life. This kind of melange does not often exit.

  22. on 07 Jun 2009 at 11:57 am 22.Frank said …

    It amazes me when every time a PIXER film is released, the hate wagon comes rolling out right behind it. UP was great film. A fun film. A thoughtful film. The 1st 10 minutes of Carl and Ellie were warm and brilliant. I was there for the ride from the beginning. A crazy giant bird. Great! Talking dogs? Even Better! An ex-adventurer who has become a twisted selfish centered bastard. Fantastic! The dogs can fly? WOW! Was this PIXERS best film ever? No. But it’s 10 times better then films by Bluesky, Sony and Dreamworks. Pete Doctor did a great job.

    Most of the criticism here sounds petty and selfish. People (Muntz) that have failed lives and/or careers and can do nothing but watch as PIXER (Carl) has an adventure of a life time. UP was everything an animator could and should love.

    Let go of your houses!

  23. on 07 Jun 2009 at 12:07 pm 23.Michael said …

    I’m glad you enjoyed the film, Frank, but the criticism isn’t just for Pixar (spelled with an “A”) films, it’s for any mediocre film. I said, in my review, that I thought the film was good but not great. I’ll stick to that. It’s my opinion, and certainly I’m entitled to it.

    You might check out this comment on Michael Barrier’s site.

    By the way, I don’t have a house to let go of because I followed my adventure right from the first dream. I’m still following it and happy about it.

  24. on 07 Jun 2009 at 5:48 pm 24.Elliot Cowan said …

    David Lynch made a film a few years back called The Straight Story.
    Up is kind of a cartoony version of that film.
    I like the Lynch film better.

  25. on 10 Jun 2009 at 2:21 pm 25.Sean said …

    I take your critisism of the unbelievable to be a positive and not negative, its animation, not reality, I dont want to see perfect plausable real life, thats not worth going to the movies for if I can just see that at home. A large portion of people in the thearter were crying less then 30 minutes into the film, for animation, I would say thats a pretty phenominal emotional reaction, and I would say justifies calling it a great film, if you can make an audience actually laugh and actually cry within that time frame I would say you deserve massive respect.

  26. on 18 Jun 2009 at 12:18 pm 26.James said …

    This movie got a 98% approval rating on


    Now, I thought the film was decent – I’d give it a high B or a low A, I think – but 98%!!!

    As the lesser denziens of the internet are fond of exclaiming – “wtf?”.

  27. on 19 Jun 2009 at 3:27 pm 27.Rick said …

    In a way I think that UP was a departure from other Pixar films in that this one actually had the death of not one, but two human characters. As I was driving away (got to see it at a Drive-In) that kept going through my mind.

    Well that and SQUIRREL!

  28. on 22 Jul 2009 at 10:09 am 28.Roberto said …

    As a Looney Tunes fan I love impossible things happening in cartoons. I’m not a rabid Pixar fan. I just think most of their films are good, but very few of them are perfect to me. I loved the majority of “Up”, ESPECIALLY the cartoony parts. I understand the criticism, but I don’t really see the problem in this movie. The prologue is not there to define the tone of the movie, it’s there to explain the character’s motivation. If the movie had started in a surreal world then there wouldn’t be surprises or fun. This summer I also watched Coraline, which was a visually impressive film, but it had a lot of problems in his narrative. I read Neil Gaiman’s novel and it worked much better to me (and I’m actually more of a Selick fan rather than Gaiman). One of the problems of Coraline-the movie-is that everything is very cartoony from the very start. The designs of the neighbours in the real world are pretty wacky, so things doesn’t seem all that surprising when Coraline arrives to the other world.

    In fact you can take Alice in Wonderland as an example of “Up” narrative, though that is revealed to be a dream at the end. Well, let’s take Uncle Scrooge comics. Yes, he’s a duck and he lives in a world of ducks but he generally lives a “normal” life in his town when something happens and the adventure starts. Sometimes the ducks find surreal stuff in they travels that you won’t normally find in a Scrooge adventure that take place in Duckburg.

    Everybody praises the dramatic elements in Up and they were really well done but I will also add that they were a little manipulative and sappy. Most of the things could have been done with more subtlety. Like Michael Barrier said we just see Carl doing the cross hearth thing or mentioning Ellie way too often (that’s the only part of his review I’d agree with). The final message of the movie is not so sappy though, cause Carl learns that he has to live his life after all.

    But the movie really worked in the comic and fantastic elements too. One of the things I really like about “Up” is that the humor is more character based than in most of other Pixar films. Lot of funny dialogues between Russell and Carl and nice interactions between them and Kevin, or Kevin and Dug. There is a lot of what I would call “comic-strip humor”, like the zeppelin being parked at the town at the end or the whole “Dennis The Menace” relationship between Russell and Carl.

    And the action scenes were fun. I cared about the characters, something that didn’t happen in Wall-E. I could always see the action clearly, something you could not find in Transformers 2. The action scenes just took the right portion of the movie (I always thought action scenes in The Incredibles were a little too long, even though they were very well done too). And the whole movie had just the nice length and it was for all audiences, without including terrible gags or slow-motion “epic” moments. These things made it much better than most of the blockbuster action movies you can’t find nowadays.

  29. on 22 Jul 2009 at 10:17 am 29.Roberto said …

    Also, about the dogs talking and flying bi-planes I enjoyed all that. The prologue of the movie introduces most of the surreal elements without showing them. They shown us that Muntz is capable of making gadgets for his dogs in the docummentary. They shown us that he had found a surprising skeleton. They shown us how Carl’s little trolley was about to fly because of the balloons. Everything is established very soon, I think that’s a sign of good writing.

Trackback This Post | Subscribe to the comments through RSS Feed

Leave a Reply

eXTReMe Tracker
click for free hit counter

hit counter