We’ve reached the exact half-way point in Pixar’s released film catalogue, which also means we’re reaching the end of Pixar’s own Golden Age. It was a period where they earned the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature four times in a row. I even remember an off-joke at the Academy Awards, saying that they should rename that particular award to the Pixar Award. And even the movies they released that didn’t do that well critically still made a lot of money. We’ll get into Up’s unique achievements later, but it is yet another first for Pixar, and a second for the entire world of animated films.
Development for Up began in 2004. Director Pete Docter would occasionally fantasize about using a flying house to escape life when it became too irritating, stemming from his difficulty with social situations while growing up. Bob Peterson (who was involved with every Pixar movie up to that point), helped develop the idea as a co-writer, and would also help with storyboarding and even voice acted Dug the dog. After he drew a picture of a grumpy old man with smiling balloons in his spare time, he decided to make Up’s main character an old man. They weren’t worried about children having trouble connecting to Carl, believing they’d connect to him like they do their grandparents.
Early concepts for Up were very different from the final film. The initial version featured a floating castle with two brothers trying to inherit their father’s kingdom. After falling to Earth, they meet a tall bird that helps them understand each other. At one point there was a soviet era spy ship camouflaged as a giant cloud. Yet another idea involved the bird’s eggs acting as a fountain of youth. Docter also spoke about how the movie reflects his friendships with Disney veterans, including the late Joe Grant, who gave the script his approval before his death in 2005. Thus, this movie is dedicated to Grant just like Cars was.
They partially based Carl’s character on Spencer Tracey, a famous actor who died in 1967. He portrayed grumpy old men in a lot of his later roles. The last role of his life was Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, which they finished a mere 17 days before Tracey died. Anyway, Pixar added a kid character, Russell, to help Carl move past his grouchy ways. They also added a talking dog, Dug, thinking it would be refreshing to show what a dog thinks instead of what people assume it thinks. To assist with Dug’s dialogue, they brought in Dr. Ian Dunbar, a famous veterinarian, dog behaviorist and trainer.
Doctor would describe Up as both a coming of age tale for Russell and an unfinished love story for Carl (who is mourning his late wife). He cited Casablanca, a Christmas Carol, Dumbo and Peter Pan as further influences. Seeing the potential parallels to The Wizard of Oz, they made sure that Up wouldn’t be too similar.
Unlike many of their previous movies, Up didn’t bring too many advancements in CGI technology – it just expanded on the developments that Pixar previously came up with. Instead, most of the animation was focused on recreating Canaima National Park in Venezuela, which Disney also used in 2000’s Dinosaur. In 2004, Docter and eleven Pixar artists spent three days reaching Monte Roraima, and spent three nights there, sketching, painting and encountering the wildlife.
For Carl’s design, they wanted him to look old but still appealing. They didn’t give him any liver spots or hair in his ears, but they gave him wrinkles, a hearing aid and a cane. Carl’s head also takes up a full third of his standing height, being big and square-ish from the front. As stylized as they were, Docter felt that the stylized looks worked better in animation than the more realistic humans in Toy Story, which he felt suffered from “uncanny valley”. I tend to agree with that idea. Just look at Polar Express, which animates realistic looking humans, and it looks kind of creepy. To help animate Carl’s movements, the animation team watched footage of the Senior Olympics.
A technical director worked out that to make Carl’s house fly, he’d need 23 million balloons. Deciding that the number would make the balloons look like tiny dots, they instead used 20,000 enlarged balloons for the takeoff sequence, and generally around 10,000 for the rest of the movie.
Michael Giacchino, who also scored The Incredibles and Ratatouille, composed the soundtrack for Up. Docter felt that the most important part of the soundtrack would be the emotion, so Giacchino wrote character-based themes to enhance the story. Carl has his own theme, with a variety of moods throughout the movie. Ellie’s theme is heard several times, with a simpler version when she meets Carl, and a full orchestral arrangement played when Carl first lifts off with his house.
“Basically, the message of the film is that the real adventure of life is the relationship we have with other people, and it’s so easy to lose sight of the things we have and the people that are around us until they are gone. More often than not, I don’t really realize how lucky I was to have known someone until they’re either moved or passed away. So, if you can kind of wake up a little bit and go, ‘Wow, I’ve got some really cool stuff around me every day’, then that’s what the movie’s about.”
Having experienced that feeling around the time my grandfather passed away, I can see and appreciate that theme in Up.
It’s also worth noting that before the movie’s release, Pixar granted a wish from a 10-year-old to see the film before she died. Colby Curtin had cancer and was too sick to see the movie in theaters, so a Pixar employee flew to her house with a DVD of the finished film, screening it with her family. She died just seven hours after seeing the movie. It’s both a happy and sad story, and one that fits the movie’s themes quite well.
Anyway, Up released in May of 2009, and was massively successful both critically and financially. It earned $735 million on a $175 million budget. It earned a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, averaging at 8.9/10. Roger Ebert called it a wonderful film. It won two Oscars, for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score. It also became the second ever animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture (behind Beauty and the Beast), and Pixar’s first. It won the same two awards at the Golden Globes. The Annie Awards gave it 9 nominations and two wins, for Best Animated Feature and Best Directing.
This is yet another Pixar movie that I really like. The real highlight of Up is the first 5 minutes, which tells the complete love story between Carl and his wife Ellie. Their meeting as kids is a humorous scene, but it’s followed by their lives together, told entirely through visuals and soundtrack. It’s a tragic tale of two adventurous souls who never achieve their dreams together. Yet despite all their hardships, they clearly loved each other and enjoyed he times they shared. Everything about this scene is beautifully constructed, and it’s hard not to tear up by the end.
The rest of the movie is still well done, building on Carl’s loss in respectful ways. It’s a fun adventure story where Carl learns to lighten up and enjoy the little things in life. It’s about Russell growing up and finding his courage. It’s about the two of them becoming unlikely friends. There’s a great balance between adventure, fun and drama. It’s probably best if I don’t say anything else about the story in case you haven’t seen Up. It’s probably best to experience the movie for yourself. I highly recommend this one though.
Next up is Toy Story 3, which some would argue is actually the best movie in the trilogy. After that it’s Cars 2, the worst reviewed Pixar movie yet and the first Pixar movie I haven’t yet seen. After that it’s Brave. Brave holds the distinction of being the only Disney Princess movie not released by Disney Animation Studios. I mentioned it in my list of the Best Disney Princesses last year, knowing that I’d likely talk about the movie at some point in the future. Soon I’ll finally start watching the Pixar movies I haven’t seen before. Time will tell whether I’ve been missing out on something wonderful, or if there are good reasons why I haven’t seen them.