Spoilers ahead, so skip this if you want to save the experience....
I'm a sucker for emotional films. I'm a softie romantic. As a kid I sobbed my way through Snoopy, Come Home. I sniffle at every single chick flick I've ever seen. Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan devastated me for weeks. Literally. About Schmidt left an impact crater on my life that still moves me (It's a great film that shares a lot with Up- it's about a widower going on an adventure to find himself after his wife passes away, establishing a relationship with a young boy along the way). So films usually have a powerful emotional affect on me. But for some reason this one didn't hold. I think I must be the only human being to have experienced this (based on all the rapturous and breathless reviews I've read so far), but Up never grabbed me. It's not like I came in wanting to not like the film. I really liked Pete Docter's first film, Monsters Inc. Emotionally I found it very rewarding when I first saw it, and the scene at the end with Boo still gets me when I watch it (like I said- I'm a softie). And I'd heard how Up was Miyasaki like in many ways, so I was looking forward to that vibe. And by all accounts Pete's a great guy, too. So I was expecting to like this film. But something happened along the way to Act 2.
I got left behind.
The 4 minute Ellie/Carl life montage felt superficial, cliche'd and- frankly- rushed. It was like "Look here's the character you're supposed to care about. See how sad it is? Let that music roll over you. You want this man to be happy, right? Good. Now- let's go fly that house!" Their relationship had no real drama. Unfortunate things & disappointments happened in their life, but none of them came from their relationship. The deepest pain and the greatest joy in life come from those we love the most. What if their childlessness caused real tension in their relationship- a wounding that needed to be redeemed and resolved? Couples who deal with sterility don't sail through very cleanly with a "There, there" pat on the hand and a supportive smile. There's wounding that goes on. You could have put that in there -- even in a montage. That sincerity would make me connect with Carl & Ellie. Remember how powerful the argument scene in The Incredibles was? That sold me on those people. Film is about expressing something of the human story in each of us. Nobody lives Carl & Ellie's story. Nobody. And that's why I felt it was a hollow moment. All that aside, even if I accepted their blissful relationship at face value, I couldn't get my heart around Carl. Carl seemed merely a spectator in Ellie's life. From the moment we see her as a child she was a catalyst character, to me Carl was a cypher. Ellie lived, Carl watched and reacted. Even the most touching thing any character ever did in Acts 2 & 3 were the words Ellie wrote in her book to Carl. I found it difficult to engage emotionally with such a character. If you're going to put the character development efforts on fast forward, then you better have some meat on that bone. The blue balloon & cross your heart symbols were just too "on-the-nose" for me. If this were done in live action- shot for shot, action for action with the same memes and symbols it would be panned as maudlin and ham-handed. If performed by Will Farrell it would have been pure comedy. In Up apparently it's the height of filmmaking, I guess. For me it was just too obvious, too by-the-numbers. Like a lot of animated filmmaking done today it seemed formulaic to the core. Like I said, I think I'm the only person who experienced the film this way. Maybe I need to see a doctor.
All that aside, I was surprised by this one discovery. I found that if the film didn't grab you in that montage, the rest of it didn't hold up. That montage was an all-or-nothing moment. If you're not in by the end of that, you're out for the rest of the film. Most folks were hooked in that early montage, and that emotional investment papered over a lot of weaknesses in the film. Which is really how films are supposed to work, because every film has holes that need to be papered over by the audience. It's called the suspension of disbelief. I guess I was Up's kryptonite.
Since I wasn't emotionally engaged I found myself just watching the film without the tears I shed in Act 1 operating as a lens that affected how I saw everything that followed. I found it to be an interesting experience to see a film from such an objective viewpoint. As a result I noticed a number of things that just didn't ring true. There was a big disconnect in the film regarding pain, danger and mortality. The rules weren't the same for every moment. In one moment wounding pain is real and meant to elicit sympathy or have fear for the welfare of the character, in another it's a gag meant to make you laugh and in other moments things that should have caused significant physical pain and injury had no effect at all on characters. Normally you'd just roll with it in animation, but they purposefully chose to show wounds with blood, welts and cuts, along with the frailty of age. That's taking things up a notch. These mean things when you are trying to establish the rules for how the audience interprets your world. This inconsistency kept me from knowing what to feel about injurious possibilities. I had to wait to have them interpreted for me. In storytelling we call those "bumps along the ride". Things that toss the audience out of the moment.
A significant item that held me back from buying into Carl's story as it unfolded was that I had a hard time buying into Carl, the old man. After the first act he stopped moving and acting like a slow, creaky, feeble 78 year old widower who needs a walking cane. He became a physically strong, high endurance, highly flexible action hero who can take a beating and keep on ticking- brushing off any ill effects from a fall or being trampled, tossed and otherwise roughly handled. I get it- his adventure revitalized him. But there's a difference between a revitalized old man and a strong young man. For all the comparisons to Miyasaki that people have for Up, this is where Miyasaki handles things way better. His frail characters live their adventures in their frailty. The girl transformed into an old woman in Howl's Moving Castle moved and acted like an old woman for the majority of the movie (until she started transforming back into her younger self, that is). The children in My Neighbor Totoro were limited children the whole film, experiencing their world as children, not action heroes. Up dispenses with human frailty in exchange for action set pieces. How many hanging one hand grabs to save oneself from falling to one's doom can a 78 year be expected to pull off? How many times can they be thrown down from heights and not break a hip? (my 76 year old mother in law broke her hip falling off a bed. And she wasn't some wilting flower of a woman, physically, either). And that's only one example. There were scores of them. I'm not the kind of person who picks nits in movies over physical impossibilities (ie: the entire Michael Bay filmography), but this is the guts of Character Animation, folks. Sure the moves exhibited a form of technical polish and solidity, but they were hollow of meaning- they weren't believable in any way because they were not true to an old man in any way. It wasn't character animation (ie: within character, expressing a unique person in every way)- it was movement to keep up with the gymnastics of adventure. Aside from a spare gag or two jammed in to occasionally remind us of his age, Carl as an elderly man just didn't ring true for the last 3/4ths of the film. If you want me to buy into a character's story then I need to buy into the character's being. This wasn't a story about an old man on an adventure saddled with the limitations of his old-man-ish-ness. That would be an interesting and intriguing film if you ask me. Instead this was an action adventure flick with a strong athletic character in an old man costume who occasionally acted old for effect. Stanislovsky's rolling in his grave. Isn't this why we pan CG 'performance capture' films? Some may say I'm quibbling. Maybe I am. But that really kept knocking me out time and time again. And it wasn't just Carl who had this problem. The antagonist Muntz behaved the exact same way. Set him up as an ancient old man (20+ years older than even Carl himself), have him move like Errol Flynn in his prime. Russel was little better in his 9 year old boy-ish-ness. I will say that there was one genius scene with Russel where he's complaining about being tired of walking like a real 9 year old boy would. It was the one moment in the film that I felt like a real character existed there. I'm sorry, but for all the raves over how great Pixar's character animation is, I found this whole thing astonishing.
I thought the most honest character in the film was Dug. His mind was simple and he was really just supposed to be a comedy relief character, but everything he did and said and emoted felt like it came from an honest place inside of him. He was a dog, he thought like a dog, had dog feelings and motivations and reactions and movements. When Dug was on the screen everything about him was sincere. His scene on the porch after the house lifts off again was amazing. He wasn't just a dog, but a real character. The animators did a magical job of expressing him as a character. In other words, I bought Dug's part in the story because I believed in Dug, even though the filmmakers didn't seem to try very hard with him. But I did not buy Carl's or Russel's story, despite all the efforts to make me choke up over them.
Artistically, I'll have more thoughts on the overall aesthetic approach and how it related to the story in another post. Quite often Up was a visually stunning film.
Anyhow, let the flames begin. I expect no shortage of scorn for posting this. *sigh*
Post Script: It's been two days since I watched Up. I haven't thought about it one bit since I wrote this review on Friday. The film continues to have had no impact on my life. I can say this is not usual for me. For whatever that's worth.