3-D Animation Takes Flight in 'Up'

Walt Disney Pictures

City Pulse | May 22, 2009
As a viable response to the brilliant opening sequence in last year's animated Wall-E, the creators of Up concoct a flawless introduction that encapsulates the development and longevity of a happy marriage between Carl Frederickson (deftly voiced by Ed Asner) and his adorable wife Ellie. A black-and-white 30's era newsreel, about Charles Muntz (a Lindbergh-styled aviator adventurer), captures the imagination of little-boy Carl whose perfect mate arrives in the guise Ellie, a snaggle-toothed lass who shares Carl's imagination for adventure. Carl and Ellie eventually get adult jobs together at a local adventure park -- he sells balloons. Their shared dream of living in a house high atop "Paradise Falls," a remote spot in South America "lost in time," binds the couple as the years pass too quickly for Ellie's lifespan to see the dream to fruition. The story-within-a-story is as bittersweet as it is affecting for the delicacy of the animator's graphic style and the sophisticated storytelling that gracefully connects the dots of its agreeable subjects. It's a set up that ties the audience to Carl as a lovable character, whose journey we already admire.

With invasive urban construction dwarfing his once serene and modest house, the recently widowed Carl sets out to make good on his promise to Ellie, and travel to the place they had always dreamed of going. At 78 Carl uses a walker, a hearing aid, and a set of dentures that will later come in handy as a most unorthodox weapon. An unfortunate mishap with a meddling construction worker ends up with a court order for Carl to be placed in an assisted care facility called Shady Oaks. However, by then Carl has already had the mild discomfort of meeting Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai), an enthusiastic if chubby nine-year-old Junior Wilderness Explorer attempting to earn his final badge -- for helping an elderly person such as Carl. Russell gets his wish when he's carried off into the air on Carl's front porch as part the house that Carl ingeniously attaches thousands of brightly colored helium balloons.

The style of character animation, under supervising animator Steve May, is built on a contrast between square and round features. In his rectangular black rimmed spectacles, giant round nostril-free nose, square jaw and squat stature, Carl is a white-haired grandfather figure who still wears the tree-house club badge -- made from a grape soda bottle cap -- that Ellie pinned on him when they first met. Russell carries a full backpack, loaded down with enough stuff to make him weigh roughly the same as Carl. The duo's combined mass works to their advantage when, after surviving a huge storm that shakes up Carl's mobile house pretty well, they arrive in South America and have to tug the cottage like a giant kite to get to Paradise Falls. The actual site that inspired the location is a place in Venezuela called Angel Falls, famous as the highest water falls in the world, where the water is atomized before it can reach the bottom.

Russell's love of chocolate attracts the attention of a rare wild bird that endears herself to the youngster as a lively pet companion. Russell names the female bird Kevin -- her babies play a key role in the plot -- and the team encounter a friendly dog whose unseen master has equipped him with a collar that enables him to speak English, and a few other languages under the right dial setting. What isn't immediately apparent to Carl and Russell are the legion of attack dogs associated with their newfound canine friend.

Christopher Plummer is perfectly diabolical as the would-be hero who turns out to be quite the opposite when our well-intentioned team meet up with the mystery man of the jungle. The narrative brilliantly comes to be about Carl's ability to redirect his life to the service of the fatherly relationship he develops with Russell. Peter Docter and co-director/screenwriter Bob Peterson have outdone themselves with a balanced and touching story well served by 3-D animation. Upis the first animated 3-D film to so fully complete its narrative and visual tasks with such apparent ease and meaningful detail. You can tell that this film was a labor of love, and that the cast and crew were sufficiently inspired by the material to craft a children's movie that is destined to be a classic. Warm and fuzzy? You bet.

Rated PG. 89 mins. A+ (Five Stars)
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