22 June 2009

"I have just met you, and I love you."

Anyone interested in the art of the narrative must see Up. Of course, anyone interested in great art, or just a good time, should already be making it a point to watch every single one of Pixar's movies, but I digress.

I probably wouldn't include Up among the best films that studio has created - it feels like a minor work, a fun and entertaining romp that is over with too quickly, and one that remains somewhat shallow despite weighty themes (although perhaps that is an argument in the film's favor). But it manages to pack in a lot of emotion, especially in the much heralded prologue, which establishes who Carl, the main character, is and why we care about him. As a sequence, it's a masterpiece, one that effectively lays the groundwork for the rest of the story and provides it with the foundation it desperately needs.

The sequence opens with a newsreel about the exploits of an adventurer named Charles Muntz at South America's Paradise Falls. A boy watches this and clearly is a big fan of Charles Muntz. As he plays later, he encounters a girl equally enamored, and she takes him into her explorers' club. They make plans to visit Paradise Falls themselves. Then a dialogue free montage shows their growing up, their marriage, their lives together, the inevitable delay of the Paradise Falls trip, the revelation that they can't have children, and her eventual death at a relatively ripe old age.

Cheery stuff, right? What this sequence manages to do is tell a very simple story in an incredibly effective way. It's the territory that Pixar probably does best - elemental stories that instantly strike some kind of primitive, emotional chord within even the most bestial hearts. Think of Marlin at the beginning of Finding Nemo, cradling the one surviving egg that will become his son, WALL-E dancing by himself, or Anton Ego flashing back to his childhood in Ratatouille. These are basic stories that don't need words.

Pixar takes them and imbues them with engaging characters and wonderful visuals, helped along with a fantastic score (in this case provided by Michael Giacchino, who is quickly becoming this generation's John Williams). They seem to be one of the few studios left that can do classic Hollywood storytelling well anymore, and their films can effectively serve as a cultural palate cleanser - this is what works in its purest form.

Stick around after the opening sequence, because the rest of the movie is pretty good too, and the call backs to that opening will always leave you attempting to choke back sobs. And then there's the visual poetry - these guys do things that are simply staggering. My favorite shot happens during Carl's initial lift-off: A little girl is in her bedroom. The balloons lifting Carl's house appears in the window behind her, and the sunlight streaming through them causes their colors to paint her walls. She looks around in surprise, then turns to see his house moving past her window. Again, there's that elemental storytelling, done extremely well. It could easily be cut, yet it fills the movie with a sense of wonder and awe. It's almost as if, after an interruption from the real world, we are reentering the 1930s childhood fantasy land the movie opened with.

How does someone even dream up a shot like that? See this movie, creatives, and be inspired.

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