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The West Wing
A 78-year-old coot thinks life has passed him by, until a chance encounter with a boy scout triggers an adventure beyond his wildest dreams. Another adult-crisis story aimed at kiddies – but without Zac Efron!
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I can totally see where this came from. Someone somewhere had an idea for an illustration of a house suspended by balloons. You never know what you're going to get with that sort of thing, if people will be content to sit on the laurels and bask in the concept by itself, or actually go to the effort of working out a compelling story to go with it. Luckily for everyone, the folks at Pixar aren't known for taking the easy way out and they haven't here.
Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) is a normal sort of guy. Grew up, got a job, got married, lived his life. Never did anything exceptionally spectacular except live a pretty good life, which is exceptional in its own right. After becoming a widower and looking towards retirement, that life he had is all he's really got to hold onto, even as the world around him changes including developers turning his once peaceful street into a high-rise complex. After a misunderstanding he looks certain to loose the one thing that has any meaning to him, so he does what anyone in his situation would do. He attaches a crap load of balloons to his chimney grate and floats away to live in South America.
It's so dream like and bizarre, kind of Miyazaki like in its conception, that almost no actual story could really match the concept without being equally dream like. That sort of whimsy is hard to do though. "Up" doesn't exactly shy away from it, but it does toe a tight line between whimsy and more conventional family fare.
No sooner does he float away than Carl finds young Russell (Jordan Nagai), a local wilderness scout intent on winning his last merit badge beyond all reason, on his doorstep and desperate to come in. What follows is a decent story of Carl building up a group of outcasts as he stolidly treks across some Venezuelan mountains trying desperately to attain his dead wife's last dream. His group just happens to contain a giant bird and a talking dog and he's doing it while carrying his floating house on his back.
It's just bizarre enough to be near great, and just conventional enough to not quite get there. Dug the talking dog (Bob Peterson) is fantastic, only upstaged by the squeaky voice of evil dog leader Alpha (also Bob Peterson) which never stops being funny, no matter how many times they go to the well.
The only real crutch is Russell. It's not that he's not a character, because he definitely has a story and development, but mainly he's a walking conflict starter. Like some old man of the sea, he changes continually as each situation demands not because he's complex (he's anything but complex) but because the filmmakers don't seem confident in their situation creating drama organically and feel compelled to put a Russell-shaped ringer in. Sometimes he's flighty and easily distracted, sometimes he's unbelievably focused, sometimes he's obtuse and sometimes he notices everything. He is whatever is needed to get Carl into trouble at any given moment. Almost every conflict in the story comes about because of him and Carl, our main character, just sort of goes along for the ride. It doesn't help that he's really obnoxious and more than a little dense. It's supposed to be funny, I think, but it's really just grating.
The other problem is that a concept like this can go literally anywhere, and that sort of freedom can be a real anchor while trying to figure out what the plot will actually be exactly because it doesn't imply an sort of real direction. "Up" doesn't really have that problem, it's got a decently told story about what's important in life and some real excitement as Carl runs into his long lost hero Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) and his dirigible full of trained dogs who've spent years looking for a lost Dodo like bird, and he's lost his mind a bit in the process. A bird that just happens to be following Carl and Russell around everywhere. It's not bad, but it's no match for the inherent magic of the "Up's" opening as Carl and his house float through downtown New York, and the film never really gets back to that level.
What it does do it does well, though. The gags are pretty good. The last act is exciting, even if the conflict itself lacks some weight, and Carl eventually makes a pretty good hero. Try not to think too hard about a pair of 70 plus year old guys sword fighting and climbing blimps, but you know, once the house floats away reality pretty much goes out the window with it.
It's a great idea for a film, even if it never quite equals its concept in its execution. The adventures in South America are a bit too standard, and Russell is too much of a crutch. It's easy to imagine "Up" being much better with just Carl and Dug. But if it's not the best film Pixar has made, and it's not, it's still frequently delightful and occasionally magical and that's pretty good.