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May 29, 2009

Up deflated by pandering plot, unoriginal visuals

Since the release of Toy Story a decade and a half ago, Pixar has delivered heartfelt stories of personal discovery and growth cleverly wrapped in Hollywood’s most cutting edge visual effects almost every year. The company has enjoyed wild critical, as well as popular, success. Coming off Wall-E, the studio’s best film to date, expectations were running high. In Up, set for nationwide release today, Pixar delivers what is easily its worst film.

Up is a simple enough story. After being forced to move from his home by a development company, Carl Fredricksen, 78-year-old widower, plans to fly the house to South America with the aid of 10,000 balloons. Halfway to Venezuela, Fredericksen finds Russell, a wilderness explorer 70 years his junior, sitting on his porch. Naturally Mr. Fredricksen tries to get the boy back home, which proves to be difficult after the pair runs into a pack of talking dogs and a large tropical bird by the name of Kevin.

The problem with the story is the lack of faith in children it reveals on the part of the film’s producers. An eight-year-old child and 78-year-old man trying to get a house on top of the Andes should be enough; there’s adventure and comedy to satisfy any child right there. Instead, the producers thought it necessary to include a mountain of really, really annoying supporting characters, essentially making it so that you have to be six to enjoy this movie.

What is most upsetting is that the story has flashes of brilliance. The lack of attention Russell gets from his family, the grief that Mr. Fredricksen feels for the loss of his wife, the home sickness and fear that Russell suffers sleeping in the jungle—these were all elements of the story that touch both child and adult. But the producers’ assumption that children can only empathize with a child or an obnoxious animal is absurd. The cries from children at the screening I attended during the montage showing Ellie, Mr. Fredricksen’s late wife, prove the absurdity of this line of thinking. Up is a few misguided additions away from being an emotionally captivating story on the level of Monsters, Inc. or Finding Nemo.

In Up, the quality of the visual effects stays fairly high throughout. This is especially true of the film’s captivating opening flight, which left me desperately wanting more. But as crisp as these effects are, for the most part they lack the imagination that was found in other Pixar films. For instance, Up features a chase sequence that takes place in the jungle, the exact location of the nearly identical scene in The Incredibles. In The Incredibles, the scene is a thrilling chase that calls to mind the brilliant forest chase in The Return of the Jedi. In Up, the chase is relatively dull, which is especially sad given the richness of the movie’s jungle setting.

In both Up’s story and its visual effects, the characters and situations typically found in the upper echelon Pixar features are, unfortunately, mixed with those found in straight-to-video Disney sequels. The story certainly had a lot of potential, especially in the interactions between Russell and Mr. Fredricksen. It is sad to see what could have been another great Pixar marriage of story and visual effects be torn down by cheap gimmicks and lazy writing.