Starring: Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, Bob Peterson, Delroy Lindo
Directed By: Pete Docter with Bob Peterson (co-director)
Why it made the list: After ranking it as my number two film of 2009 and number four film in Pixar’s history, it sometimes feels like this was the only movie I wrote about last year. Up combines Indiana Jones/Goonies-style adventure with a deep, resonant emotional connection not found in many live action dramas, much less a family-friendly animated feature. This emotional connection tends to dominate any discussion of the film, and indeed, it’s probably what put it over the top to crack this list, but it overshadows the wonderful sense of fun that pervades throughout. We’re talking about a film with a colourful floating house, an adorably spazzy kid, talking dogs, mythical birds, and a literal mid-air dogfight, yet the conversation is dominated by how much it makes people cry (which, of course, I’ll be doing below). Ultimately, that speaks to how deeply this film hits, and retains that power with every viewing.
Spoiler Specifics: For such a fanciful film, what stands out is the touches of authenticity, even if they’re only emotionally authentic (you know, as opposed to actually authentic… this’ll make sense in a second, I promise). Just about anyone who’s met a dumb, lovable golden retriever has imagined them thinking the same things Dug says in the film. Other than the talking, he comes off as a dog, not a typical “movie” dog. Russell feels like an excitable nine-year-old boy (which, I imagine, describes most nine-year-old boys). Sure, he’s a bit of a spaz (which again, I imagine, describes most nine-year-old boys) but the film tempers that with a bit of sadness when suggesting that his neediness is a result of his parent’s divorce and his father’s subsequent neglect. The film wisely doesn’t dwell on this, keeping Russell a largely happy kid, but that little touch of poignancy gives the movie not only a sense of authenticity but also possibly informs some of his choices (Russell can’t abandon Kevin because of his own abandonment issues? Or am I over-thinking things?). But the best sense of authenticity comes from Carl’s devotion to Ellie, which is the raw, beating heart of the movie. All it takes is a simple touch of his mailbox to completely melt me, putting me in firmly on Team Fredricksen, no matter how cantankerous Carl gets.
Significant scene: Perhaps the most talked about opening scene in a movie since Saving Private Ryan, the opening sequence of Up is a mini-movie of stunning beauty that it would’ve locked up an Oscar for Best Animated Short by itself (instead of contributing to its Animated Feature win). It’s a perfect distillation of the lives of two people in love, picking precisely the right moments both large and small to tell us everything we need to know about them and their relationship without the need for dialogue (backed by the wonderfully versatile score by Oscar winner Michael Giacchino). We only spend around 10 minutes with Ellie, yet her presence is felt throughout the rest of the film, and when we’re forced to say goodbye, the loss is palpable. It’s a devastating sequence that economically and efficiently hits its mark as well as any scene in recent memory. It helps us understand why Carl retreats into their house after her passing, and why he would go to such desperate lengths to fulfill what he views as their great regret. Which makes the film’s payoff so powerful, when Carl finally flips through her Adventure Book to realize that while they never got to go on the adventures they had originally anticipated (be it a trip to Paradise Falls or raising children), it was still filled with their own lifetime of adventures. Which puts a whole new slant on the opening sequence, reminding the viewer that while it’s always sad to be confronted with mortality, the sequence is actually a celebration of a life well lived. Now all I have to figure out is how 3D technology has advanced so far as to fill my eyes with actual dust while watching it… even when watching at home without those silly glasses.