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The greatest thing about Pixar Studios is their willingness to embrace pure imagination, when other multi-million dollar studios would back-off in favour of another sequel or reiteration of the Hero’s Journey. The studio’s outlandish and original pitches have developed a bit of a joke, yet they keep delivering on their promises, which, of course, just makes the joke that much funnier. The critics consistently announce that whatever recent pitch is thrown will be the studio’s first failure. Nobody will take their kids to see a movie about middle aged superheroes. They did. Nobody wants to see a movie about a rat that cooks. They did. A kid’s movie that takes place on a post-apocalyptic earth will never be a hit. It was. When Pixar announced the plot of Up you could almost hear the stalwart cry of ‘Bring it on’ carried on the wind.

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Following the death of his wife and long time companion Ellie, Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) retreats into curmudgeony reclusion, refusing to leave his home even after the city grows around him. When he’s finally forced to go to a retirement home following a scuffle with a construction worker, Carl makes the drastic decision to fulfill his late wives dreams of visiting Paradise Falls in South America. Contrary to expectations, Carl fills several thousand balloons with helium, and rides his house, instead of taking a plane. Everything’s going well until there’s a knock at the door. Turns out that Russell, a Wilderness Explorer in search of his final merit badge (assisting the elderly) was on the porch when the house took off.

Nobody wants to see that. Or do they?

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Pixar films have largely been defined over the years by four major creative entities, or more specifically directors – John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird and Up director Pete Docter (the co-directors are, of course, very important as well). In broad terms the first three directors’ work could be defined as such:

- Lasseter ( Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2 and Cars) is the most old-fashion storyteller, with a focus on formula and feel-good values.
- Stanton ( Finding Nemo and Wall-E) is a bit more of a maverick, who came out of the Lasseter formula to cover more difficult subject matter. Stanton also seems more interested in reality than the other Pixar directors.
- Brad Bird ( The Incredibles and Ratatouille) is the outsider, and has found ways to deal with outlandish elements from an adult point of view.

Director Pete Docter now has two films under his belt as lead director, which makes his standing in the company more obvious. Stylistically he lands somewhere between Lasseter and Stanton. According to Monsters Inc. and Up, Docter is more interested in tradition animation, and pays regular homage to Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Bob Clampett and Friz Freleng. He’s also not afraid to go to extremes for physical comedy, and his two films are probably the broadest in the studio’s canon. Docter also has no qualms concerning sappy emotions, and characters defined by how adorable they are. With Monster’s Inc. he toed the edge over-and-over, threatening to tip over into pure camp or pure saccharin. The other major Pixar contributing directors aren’t above such sap, especially Lasseter and Stanton, but there’s something about Monsters Inc. that was distinctly touchy-feely.

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Up shows real growth from Monsters Inc., mostly in that it deals in less warm-fuzziness (that’s not a Sully pun, by the way). There are few mainstream summer films (especially not those costing an estimated $175 million) that would be willing to deal with the emotional pain of loss in such a straight forward manner, and even fewer carrying a G-rating. Carl is required to grow more dramatically than any Pixar character ever, except maybe Lightning McQueen from Cars. The dramatic threats are all tangible, and Docter isn’t afraid to go some scary places with the film’s default villain, the famed-explorer turned crazy-recluse Charles Muntz, but the dramatic tension mostly comes out of Carl’s three act character arc. The montage treatment of Karl’s relationship with his wife at the beginning of the film is largely considered one of the year’s defining cinematic moments by critics and audiences. Astonishingly enough, this isn’t hyperbole, the sequence is one of the most genuinely moving things I’ve ever seen on the big screen, and a textbook example how to deal with exposition gracefully. It also features a dozen or so callbacks which are easy to catch on a second viewing. It’s the best scene in the film, but unlike Pixar’s previous release, Wall-E, which never quite lived up to its first act achievements, the rest of the film would still work well as a quirky adventure picture without it.

Up doesn’t look to shabby either. Stylistically there’s really nothing else quite like it in the Pixar canon, especially the humans characters, which are probably the most caricatured in the studio’s history. Even The Incredibles weren’t this deformed and cartoony. Characters are often practically defined by a single shape – Carl is a series of squares, Russell is an oval, Muntz is triangles – and their proportions are decidedly unrealistic. The skin effects are still a bit on the plastic side, so Dreamworks wins the ‘new skin’ war for the year ( Monsters vs. Aliens had some damn uncanny skin), but Carl and Muntz both feature some more realistic flesh impurities. The animation follows suit. Though not as elastic as some of the recent Dreamworks and Fox CG animation, the Up characters  move quickly and broadly when called for. The dogs are particularly memorable, especially Dug’s meticulously natural canine attributes, but Kevin the giant bird is the most extraordinary bit of expressionism in the entire film. Her early interactions with the egg-like Russell are the character animation highlight. There’s still plenty of subtle character work, especially on Russell, who’s so round and small featured it could’ve been difficult to discern his mood, and the action animation is up to the studio’s usual standards.

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Video


Disney presents another reference level CG feast for the eyes on Blu-ray disc. I looked as hard as I could to find some kind of mistake on the transfer, but there aren’t any. None. Not even a little compression noise during quick, busy movement, or minor edge-enhancement on the blacks of silhouetted shots. Details are pretty much perfect throughout the transfer, moving way beyond the abilities of the included SD DVD, especially in the beautiful wide shots, which are just as consistently sharp as the extreme close-ups. Skin is pretty smooth overall, but the clothing textures are quite intricate. You can practically count the threads on the characters’ pants, even in wide shots. Hair is stylistically fluffy, but the dog fur is quite realistic, and the grey whiskers Carl sprouts over his adventure are a good calibration tool for your set’s sharpness levels. Other great details lost on the DVD version of the film include rock textures, fine impurities in the glass and metal of Muntz’ blimp, and the strings of the balloons, which feature no edge-enhancement even when place against the harsh blue sky. Oh, and those blues. And the reds, and the yellows, and the non-primary colours. They’re beautiful. Crisply cut against each other, bright, full, and they feature no compression, bleeding, or noise.

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Audio


Up also comes fitted with yet another reference level DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Yawn. Marvel at the subtle ambiance of the wind over malformed rocks, the bombast of a multi-channel engulfing storm, and the directional effect excitement of zipping airplanes. The vocal performances are all naturally pitched, reflecting their environments more realistically than plenty of big-budget live action films. The dogs are a good example, especially when they’re given permission to speak freely, which fills the channels with perfectly mixed voices of varying volume and inflection (not to mention barks). Michael Giacchino’s music is, in Pixar tradition, a character all its own. Giacchino’s themes are hummable, and well altered in sevenths and minor chords to express mood. The score is best utilized when it’s given a solo track during the aging montage, which features zero other sound. The following scene, where Carl wakes up and starts his day, is a great example of the mix’s dynamic range. The mix starts quietly, and focuses on the minor aural details of Carl’s cracking joints. This is followed by a warm influx of Bizet's ‘Carmen’ mixed with only subtle effect additions. Then Carl steps outside and the track is flooded with the sounds of the city, and the construction tearing up the area around his house.

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Extras


Sigh. Here’s the part where I once again apologize for my Profile 1.0 player’s limitations. Seriously, the second I have the money I’m buying a PS3 and going back through these more ‘prestigious’ reviews to correct this. Bad economy, no job, etc. Anyway, Up starts with a Cine-Explore, PiP making-of/commentary track that I’m sure is the bees knees. Fortunately, disc one doesn’t end there. Next up are two animated shorts. Partly Cloudy (5:50, HD), which preceded Up in theaters, is a bit too cutesy for its own good, and is a definite step down from the unmitigated glory of Presto or Lift (which both drive me to tears), but its still good for a few healthy belly laughs. Not to mention the fact that it looks gorgeous in HD. Dug’s Special Mission (4:40, HD), which was made to accompany Up’s Blu-ray and DVD release, apparently takes place a little bit before we meet the character in the film proper. Dug is given a series of seemingly menial tasks by Alpha in hopes of keeping him out of the way. After enough of these menial tasks go wrong, Dug meets our heroes. Adorable.

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‘Adventure is Out There’ (22:20, HD) is featurette concerned with a crew field trip to the real table-top mountains in South America. The tale is told through interviews, on-site video, photos, sketches and motion graphics. The trip had a clear effect on the film, specifically the dizzying scale, the odd weather patterns, and the strangely shaped rocks at the top. The first disc is completed with an alternate scene featurette entitled ‘The Many Endings of Muntz’ (5:00, HD). The filmmakers weren’t sure what to do with the villain, and even thought about redeeming him in the end. In the end death was the desired effect, and his many different deaths are presented here in rough storyboard form. I kind of like these other deaths more than the one the character was finally given.

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Disc two starts with a series of seven, self explanatory design and research featurettes, minus a play-all option. These include ‘Geriatric Hero’ (6:20, HD), ‘Canine Companions’ (8:30, HD), ‘Russell: Wilderness Explorer’ (9:00, HD), ‘Our Giant Flightless Friend, Kevin’ (5:00, HD), ‘Homemakers of Pixar’ (4:40, HD), ‘Balloons and Flight’ (6:30, HD), and a look at music titled ‘Composing for Characters’ (7:30, HD). These would’ve worked better as a short documentary, and I resent going back to the menu between each bit (grumble, grumble), but it’s hard not to be entertained by these information appetizers.

These are followed by another alternate scene featurette (9:00, HD). The process of force feeding the audience Karl and Ellie’s marriage wasn’t easy. The original idea was to show the couple in the midst of an ongoing punching contest. This was a bit too aggressive, but before doing away with the idea altogether the crew tried a version of the final montage with a slightly more wicked slant. This version, which is generally the same as the one in the final film, is presented in full in storyboard form. The set is completed with a promo animation montage (6:00, HD), a ‘Global Guardian Badge’ game (quiz game, reasonably fun), and trailers.

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Overall


It’s easy to complain about the summer of 2009, because the disappointments were pretty brutal, but besides spikes of genuine fun like Star Trek, and genuine adult-level greatness like Inglourious Basterds, the season’s two most re-watchable films were released on the same day. Up and Drag Me to Hell don’t have a lot in common plot-wise, but they’re both brimming with tasty nostalgia, and actually make an excellent double feature. This Blu-ray collection is unsurprisingly just about the most perfect thing fans could hope for from the high definition format, and it features some solid extras, which are likely even better for those of us with better than Profile 1.0 players. I’m sure no one is surprised.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.


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