Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Pixar Edition. Up

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Up

Year: 2009 1

Budget: $175 million

Box office: $735.1 million

Plot: Nine-year-old Carl Fredricksen idolizes famous explorer Charles F. Muntz. When Muntz is accused of fabricating the skeleton of a giant exotic bird he says he discovered at Paradise Falls, he vows not to return until he captures one alive. One day, Carl befriends a girl named Ellie, also a Muntz fan. She confides to Carl her desire to move her “clubhouse”—an abandoned house in the neighborhood—to a cliff overlooking Paradise Falls.

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Carl and Ellie grow up, marry and live in the restored house. After Ellie suffers a miscarriage and they are told they cannot have a child, the couple remembers their childhood dream of visiting Paradise Falls. They save for the trip, but repeatedly have to spend the money on more pressing needs. Finally, the now elderly Carl arranges for the trip, but Ellie suddenly falls ill, is hospitalized, and dies.

Sometime later, Carl still lives in the house, stubbornly holding out while the neighborhood homes are torn down and replaced by skyscrapers. When he accidentally injures a construction worker, the court deems him a public menace, ordering him to move to a retirement home. However, Carl resolves to keep his promise to Ellie by turning his house into a makeshift airship, using thousands of helium balloons.

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Russell, a young “Wilderness Explorer” visits Carl in his effort to earn his final merit badge, for assisting the elderly, becomes an accidental stowaway. The flying house lands on a tepui opposite Paradise Falls. Carl and Russell harness themselves to the still-buoyant house and begin to walk it across the mesa, hoping to reach the falls before the balloons deflate.

Russell encounters a tall, colorful flightless bird whom he names “Kevin”. They then meet a Golden Retriever named Dug, who wears a special collar that allows him to speak and who vows to take the bird to his master. The next day, they encounter a pack of aggressive dogs led by Alpha, a Doberman Pinscher, and are taken to their master, who turns out to be Charles Muntz.

Muntz invites Carl and Russell aboard his dirigible, where he explains to them that he is searching for a giant bird. When Russell notes the bird’s similarity to Kevin, Muntz becomes hostile, believing they are attempting to capture the bird themselves. Carl flees with Kevin and Dug, but Muntz captures Kevin and starts a fire beneath Carl’s house, forcing him to choose between saving it or Kevin. Carl saves the house and eventually reaches the falls, but Russell is upset at Carl for abandoning Kevin.

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Carl looks through Ellie’s childhood scrapbook and is surprised to find that she has filled in the blank pages with photos of their marriage, along with a note written from her hospital bed, thanking him for the “adventure” and encouraging him to have a new one. The repentant Carl goes outside, only to see Russell sailing off with some balloons and a propulsive leaf blower to rescue Kevin. By throwing out his furniture and keepsakes, Carl lightens the house enough to follow.

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Russell is captured by Muntz, but Carl manages to board the dirigible, tether the house, and free Russell and Kevin. Dug inadvertently saddles Alpha with the cone of shame and becomes the dogs’ new leader. Muntz determinedly pursues them around the airship and manages to disable Carl’s house, but snags his foot on some loose balloon lines and falls to his death. The house, having lost too many balloons to fly, descends out of sight through the clouds.

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Carl and Russell reunite Kevin with her chicks and fly the dirigible back home. Russell receives his ‘Assisting the Elderly’ badge, and Carl presents Russell with his own badge: a grape soda cap that Ellie gave to Carl when they first met. Meanwhile, Carl’s house has landed on the cliff beside Paradise Falls, fulfilling his promise to Ellie.

Background:

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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. -Pete Docter

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Director Pete Docter began writing Up in 2004. He developed the fantasy of a flying house on the idea of escaping from life when it becomes too irritating, The initial version featured a floating city on an alien planet, with two brothers vying to inherit their father’s kingdom, and when the brothers fell to Earth, they encountered a tall bird who helped them understand each other. Docter’s next idea had Carl and Russell landing the house on a Soviet-era spy airship camouflaged as a giant cloud. Another idea Docter had was magic fountain-of-youth eggs laid by the bird, in order to explain the age discrepancy between Muntz and Carl.

Carl was primarily based on Spencer Tracy, Walter Matthau, James Whitmore, and their own grandparents, because there was “something sweet about these grumpy old guys”. The character Charles Muntz comes from Howard Hughes and Errol Flynn. South America was chosen due to both Docter’s love of tropical locations, but also in wanting a location Carl could be stuck with a kid due to the inability to leave him with an authority such as a police officer or social worker.

Animation: In 2004, Docter and eleven other Pixar artists spent three days reaching Monte Roraima by airplane, by jeep, and by helicopter. They then flew to Matawi Tepui and climbed to Angel Falls.

Carl was not given elderly features such as liver spots or hair in his ears to keep him appealing, yet giving him wrinkles, pockmarks on his nose, a hearing aid, and a cane to make him appear elderly. The directors had various rules for Carl’s movements: he could not turn his head more than 15–20 degrees without turning his torso as well, nor could he raise his arms high. However, they also wanted him to grow more flexible near the end of the film, transforming into an “action hero”.

Carl has a squarish appearance to symbolize his containment within his house, while Russell is rounded like a balloon. Muntz is much more angular than either. Docter felt that stylized characters worked better than attempting to animate them realistically Simulating realistic cloth on caricatured humans was harder than creating the 10,000 balloons flying the house. New programs were made to simulate the cloth and for Kevin’s iridescent feathers.

A technical director worked out that to make Carl’s house fly, he would require 23 million balloons, but Docter realized that number made the balloons look like small dots. Instead, the balloons created were made to be twice Carl’s size. There are 10,927 balloons for shots of the house just flying, and 20,622 balloons for the lift-off sequence.

Music: Up is the third Pixar film to be scored by Michael Giacchino, after The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Giacchino has compared the film to opera since each character has a unique theme that changes during a particular moment in the story. The score won the Academy Award for Best Original Score, 2 the Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack Album, the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score, and the 2010 BAFTA Award for Best Film Music.

Voice Cast:

Ed Asner as Carl Fredricksen 3 He is best known for his role as Lou Grant during the 1970s and early 1980s, on both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spin-off series Lou Grant. He is also known for portraying Santa Claus in the comedy film Elf. He is the most honored male performer in the history of the Primetime Emmy Awards, having won seven. 4 As a voice actor, he is known for playing J. Jonah Jameson on the Spider-Man, Hoggish Greedly on Captain Planet and the Planeteers, Hudson on Gargoyles and Roland Daggett on Batman: The Animated Series. Christopher Plummer as Charles F. Muntz. 5 Plummer has received accolades for his work, including an Academy Award, 6 a Genie Award, 7 an Emmy Award, 8 two Tony Awards, 9 a Golden Globe Award, 10 a SAG Award, 11 and a British Academy Film Award.12 Other notable films include The Man Who Would Be King, The Return of the Pink Panther, Aces High, The Silent Partner, International Velvet, Somewhere in Time, Eyewitness, Dragnet, Shadow Dancing, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Malcolm X, Wolf, Dolores Claiborne, 12 Monkeys, Syriana, Must Love Dogs, The New World, The Lake House, Remember, The Insider, A Beautiful Mind, Inside Man, Alexander, National Treasure and All the Money in the World. He is best known for playing Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music.

Jordan Nagai as Russell. Nagai showed up to an audition with his brother, who was actually the one auditioning. Docter realized Nagai behaved and spoke non-stop like Russell and chose him for the part. Nagai was eight years old when cast. Bob Peterson as Dug and Alpha. Peterson is the co-director and animator on the film. Hehas also voiced characters for Pixar films such as Geri in the short Geri’s Game, Roz in Monsters, Inc. and Monsters University and Mr. Ray in Finding Nemo and Finding Dory.

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Delroy Lindo as Beta. He made his Broadway debut in ” Master Harold”…and the Boys, and earned a Tony nomination for his portrayal of Herald Loomis in August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. He appeared in three films by Spike Lee: Crooklyn, Malcolm X, and Clockers. Other films include Get Shorty, and Ransom. Jerome Ranft as Gamma, a Bulldog. Ranft joined Pixar in 1997 working as a character sculptor on Geri’s Game and later on A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Cars, Ratatouille, Toy Story 3, and Brave.

Director Pete Docter played Kevin and Campmaster Strauch. His daughter Elizabeth played Ellie

Where in the World is John Ratzenberger? Tom, the construction worker who asks if Carl is ready to sell his house

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Pizza Planet Truck: When Carl’s house first takes off and when the camera zooms out from the parking lot at the end

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Critical Reception: Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and called it “a wonderful film.” Edward Asner was praised in several media outlets for his portrayal of Carl. San Francisco Chronicle editor Mick LaSalle praised Asner as a great choice due to having a grumpiness to his voice that is not truly grumpy, but rather coming from a protective stance. Entertainment Weekly editor Lisa Schwarzbaum praised Asner’s acting, stating that he has a “Lou Grant authority” to his voice.

In an interview with NPR in 2013, Angry Asian Man’s Phil Yu reflected on the character of Russell’s lack of typical Asian stereotyping, stating, “You know, he just happens to be Asian and he’s, you know, really adorable character. But that kid could’ve been of any ethnicity but they made the effort to make him Asian—just a little color, you know, and it’s really wonderful when that kind of thing happens where they don’t have to play that up and make it like a thing or a joke, which happens a lot.”

Up won two awards at the 82nd Academy Awards, for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score. 13 Up also won Best Original Score and Best Animated Feature Film at the 67th Golden Globe Awards. It was nominated for nine Annie Awards in eight categories, winning two awards for “Best Animated Feature” and “Best Directing in a Feature Production”.

Legacy: Russell and Dug meet and greet guests at Animal Kingdom. Wilderness Explorer stations exist throughout the park where young guests can earn various merit badges. The characters appear in parades as well.

Video games: On May 26, 2009, a video game was released for multiple platforms. Kinect Rush: A Disney–Pixar Adventure, was also released on March 20, 2012, for Xbox 360. It features characters from five of Pixar’s films: Up, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, and Toy Story.

My take: Let’s start with the obvious: The opening sequence chronicling Carl and Ellie’s life is a masterpiece of storytelling. If you watched that and didn’t cry, there’s something wrong with you. There just is.

And it’s just the beginning. When he reads Ellie’s note to have a new adventure, it galvanizes him. He sheds the trappings of his old life to save Russell, and do you notice how physical he is after that? He is reborn.

The house soaring through the air. What a great image!

Now the funny:

  • Carl hitting the stair climber to make it go, is the laugh we needed to go on with the rest of the film
  • Carl thinking about dropping Russell
  • Russell trying to climb the hose
  • Alpha’s voice
  • Russell smacking against the windshield and sliding across it

And then there’s Dug

Next Week: We have friends on the other side