Continuing the unassailable winning streak for animation studio Pixar, last summer’s UP (2009) arrives on Blu-Ray this week in a package that makes an adjective like ‘comprehensive’ seem inadequate. We missed the film’s theatrical run, mostly out of indecision as to which version – standard 2D or the often heralded Disney Digital 3D – to make the effort to see, and so, like any good American, we just didn’t do anything. Of course, UP is wonderful – we knew that already; for the last few years, we’ve been looking for weak spots in Pixar’s armor like Bilbo Baggins searching for the bare patch on Smaug’s breast plate only to find nothing. Even CARS – a digital love letter to the world of NASCAR (an apparent national pastime which leaves us colder than a WWI trench) had an undeniable charm that out-stripped most competing animated fare.
Both UP and WALL-E (2008) have represented a new direction for the studio toward more ‘adult’ themes (no, not that kind of adult theme) and more unusual narrative leaps; most critics were unified on the beauty and austerity of WALL-E’s breathlessly executed (and nearLY wordless) first act, featuring the titular robot on an abandoned Earth; however, many felt that the outer space adventure that filled the rest of the plot seemed almost jarringly trite – not living up to the promise of the gorgeous opening. UP suffered similar complaints, but we found it a more heartfelt, captivating tale than WALL-E (which, make no mistake, we loved) and agree with those who place it among the very best films of the year – animated or not.
UP’s plot, roughly sketched, is about a recent widower, Carl Fredricksen (voiced wonderfully by Ed Asner) who uses thousands of balloons to fly his home to Paradise Falls in South America and fulfill a promise made to his late wife Ellie many years ago. Complicating matters is a determined Wilderness Explorer named Russell (voiced by 9 year old Jordan Nagal), who was on Carl’s porch trying to secure an Elderly Assistance merit badge just before take off. A freak storm blows the balloon very close to its destination, where Carl and Russell run afoul of disgraced explorer Charles Muntz (the great Christopher Plummer), a childhood hero of Carl and Ellie who has spent decades in the jungle looking for the notorious Monster of Paradise Falls, which happens to be the very same gigantic bird that has taken a shine to Russell and Carl. We have friends in the publishing industry that occasionally receive early peeks at Pixar films for the purposes of book tie-ins, and in much the same way we didn’t believe that the hero of the previous Pixar film would be a robot who doesn’t talk, we were also dubious about the prospects of a septuagenarian and his cub scout friend pulling a Danny Deck Chair – heading to South America and finding lost worlds, giant birds, and talking dogs (forgot to mention that, didn’t we?).
But the heart of Pixar’s films isn’t plot; it’s characterization and execution delivered in equal measure. Carl is drawn, literally and figuratively, with enough love and care to transcend the accepted limitations of animation. Much has been said of the film’s opening movement, a montage of Carl and Ellie’s life together that should leave all but the archest military strongmen crippled with tears. This couldn’t have pleased Disney or its corporate partners all that much, as it will likely leave very young children utterly puzzled while their parents-guardians crumble into fits of melancholy. The tone changes drastically with the arrival of Russell and the voyage south, and the second half of the film becomes downright surreal. How funny you find UP’s later sequences will depend largely on how funny you find Kevin the giant bird (so named by Russell) – a vision right out of a Chuck Jones cartoon (we could easily imagine Duck Dodgers spending a show engaged in a battle of wits with Kevin).
Pixar also continues their tradition of casting actors rather than celebrities for the principal roles; Asner is an inspired choice for Carl, as the actor’s inherent gruffness nicely counteracts the weepier portions of the script. Equally good as the still-proud Muntz, surrounded by mementos of his faded glory, is Plummer, who always excelled at playing larger-than-life peacock types.
Those fortunate to have BD capability will be laid out flat by the image quality of this release. Details like the light filtered through the balloons as they pass by an apartment window, or the weave in the fabric of Russell’s scout shirt, or Carl’s subtle facial stubble come through and reveal the astonishing level of detail that Pixar’s digital rendering team have come up with. The BD’s 1080p picture is the result of a direct digital download off Pixar’s own servers, resulting in the cleanest image possible, and what may be the best looking Pixar film on home video (UP is generally without the heavy filtering that the animators used on WALL-E, so even though both BD perfectly represent the vision of the respective filmmakers, UP “pops” a bit more).
We also had to remember to keep turning down our receiver, forgetting how muscular a lossless DTS audio track for a Pixar film can be. The feature can be played with a “Cine-Explore Mode” giving you a running PIP commentary from directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, which cannot be adjusted on the fly – you need to return to the menu screen. Included with the feature on the first disc is the slapstick stork comedy short Partly Cloudy that ran with Up theatrically; a new short, Dug’s Special Mission (which almost plays like a deleted scene from the feature – again, not a bad thing).
There’s also a featurette on the numerous demises scripted and eventually rejected for the villain Muntz; a longish piece about a trip that the principal animators took to an actual South American plateau; and a not-too-hard-to-find Easter Egg called, not surprisingly, The Egg, which contains some very trippy artwork featuring an abandoned story concept that had Muntz retaining his youth by drinking the contents of exotic eggs directly from the shell (presumably poor Kevin’s). Needless to say, all bonus features are in HD and look nearly as fabulous as the feature.
The second BD disc contains another large helping of extra content, including the Global Guardian Badge Game (an interactive BD exclusive, you know, for kids). Our own favorite extra, however, is a study of Carl and Muntz, Geriatric Heroes, charting the design and shaping of the unique characters. Other docus include Canine Companions (which goes over the creation of Muntz’s digital dog army) and Our Feathered Friend, Kevin (which gives insight into the research that went into the giant bird’s creation).
There are 6 other worthwhile featurettes here as well, and all are in HD (not counting the promotional montage and theatrical trailers). The set also contains a standard DVD (disc 1 of the DVD set) so that houses that don’t yet have BD can future proof their movie library) and a fourth disc featuring a digital copy of the film.