I first saw 50 minutes of Pixar's 'Up' back at New York Comic Con this February, and was intrigued and impressed, but also slightly worried. That chunk of the Pete Docter movie was just so filled with stuff - a wordless prologue that set up the relationship between Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) and the love of his life, Ellie, from childhood to old age (novelistic to be sure); a house lifted high into the air by billions of balloons; a talking dog named Dug (voiced by co-director Bob Peterson); and a jungle landscape as alien as the moon, populated by an imaginary nine-foot-tall flightless bird. It was funny, for sure, and at times achingly beautiful, but where, exactly, was this going to go? And was it going to coalesce into a solidified whole?
Well, I should have put those fears aside. 'Up' is easily one of the best movies of 2009, a deeply affecting triumph of imagination and heart. It soars.
Without giving too much away, the movie really takes off after the 50 minutes of set up I saw at Comic Con. After Carl gets his house down to that South American jungle, and he and his Wilderness Explorer sidekick Russell (Jordan Nagai) befriend the talking dog and Day-Glo-colored bird, things rocket from one hair raising action set piece to the other, showcasing Pixar's ability to up the ante in a way reminiscent of Robert Zemeckis in his heyday - mixing physical comedy gags with real danger. Also, in that second half of the movie we get introduced to Charls Muntz, the villainous former adventurer (and now obsessed monster hunter) played with great gusto by Christopher Plummer.
The movie is beautiful looking, for sure, taking 'The Incredibles' route of eschewing reality for a kind of streamlined stylization - Carl is absurdly blocky, while Russell is more or less an egg (this is part of the reason why Kevin, the bird, loves him so much). When the house takes flight, your jaw will drop. It's simple, yes, but no less powerful. They've tapped into a kind of gentle Miyazakian fantasy. And even though 'Up' was presented in 3-D theatrically, losing that extra dimension will not dull the movie's visceral oomph in the slightest.
Docter's last movie for the studio, 2001's 'Monsters, Inc.', wasn't the most refined looking Pixar movie and it stretched the studio's buddy comedy template to the breaking point, but Docter's sense of comedic rhythm was truly noteworthy. Here, his evolution as a filmmaker is a profound one - not only does he keep up his distinction as being Pixar's funniest director (in truth this may be Pixar's funniest film yet), but his directorial skills have been heightened too. He directs the action sequences and comedic moments with subtlety and finesse, making you care about both deeply, and the moments of tragedy enrich every funny beat with true pathos.
It should also be noted that Docter got a great score out of Michael Giacchino, fast becoming one of cinema's greatest composers. Like the rest of the film, Giacchino handles the music with a light touch, adding just the right amount of melancholy to the largely buoyant tale. It's a testament to the composer's extremely versatile talent that he could provide the epic orchestral bombast to 'Star Trek' and turn around and deliver a simple score as emotionally resonant as this.
And that's what's really great about "Up" - how sweet it is. Not saccharine, mind you, or cloying (unlike recent kiddie fare like 'Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian'), but genuinely sweet. Pixar has never been interested in "edgy" humor or a pop culture references galore (like another animation house), but instead they're deeply concerned with telling a great story. And they do that here. Those that were turned off by the somewhat biting, bleak satirical nature of last year's 'WALL•E' will walk away refreshed (it also lacks that film's restless experimentalism, but that's okay - 'Up' is plenty weird).
In conclusion: Pixar has done it again. Pete Docter and Bob Peterson's film is easily one of the best, most accomplished, and most beautiful movies of the year. It's equal parts slapstick comedy, ode to the lost magic of flight, old age drama, and breathless action adventure. And it juggles all of these elements with a fearlessness and dexterity that will leave your jaw on the floor.
What else is there to say about Pixar home video transfers? This baby is perfect. The MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer (aspect ratio: 1.78:1) is flawless. It was just like watching it digitally projected on the big screen. Colors are vibrant, flesh tones look good, shadows and darkness are inky black, motion is stellar, depth is amazing, detail extraordinary - I'm running out of adjectives!
This is just one of the best pictures you're ever going to see on Blu-ray - just solid and beautiful the entire time. Period. And unlike the recently released 'Monsters vs. Aliens' (which was also released in 3-D), 'Up' isn't riddled with gimmicky 3-D effects (no one is rolling a yoyo towards the camera or anything like that). It just looks deep and rich and it doesn't matter how many actual dimensions that takes up.
The gorgeousness of the image never distracts from the emotional underpinnings of the story, either. Kevin's feathers never dazzle you to the point that you forget about what's going on or why these characters are doing what they're doing. It's a tough balancing act, but Pixar has pulled it off marvelously. The day I receieved my review copy of 'Up,' I had just seen 'Toy Story' and 'Toy Story 2' in 3-D at the theater, and just to see how far they’ve come from their first movie ('Toy Story') to up, is amazing. I mean, texture and all that technical stuff have come a long way, yes, but I was more impressed with how the characters move and how their faces work; the emotional stuff.
Just as impressive is the Master Audio 5.1 DTS-HD audio track here. I mean it. Like everything else about this disc, it's just stunning. Atmosphere and ambience are always present, with the surround sound getting a vigorous workout, not just in the more action packed sequences, but in the way that the house breathes and groans once its lifted in the air, or the individualized balloons bumping into one another and letting out that brief squeak. I mean, it's just amazing. The amount of nuance is incredible.
On the special features on the disc, they talk about how the mix for this was pared down. They wanted to focus on the story, characters, and theme to the point where a lot of the extraneous noise, that you could have put in at all points, would have taken away from the emotional experience. So you don't hear the balloons at every point in the journey, but when you need to, they're there.
Simple things like a window shattering just sound amazing, and not overwhelming, either. Dialogue is perfect, and everything is well prioritized in the mix. The action sequences are absolutely phenomenal and dwarf the biggest Hollywood action spectacle. Michael Giacchino's score, which has already been praised in this review, sounds even better. It's just the score of the year, hands down, and in this mix sounds lovelier than ever.
Other audio options included are a French Dolby Digital 5.1 track, a Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 track, an English DTS-HD 2.0 track (a nice option, if I do say so myself), and English Descriptive Video Service 2.0. There are also subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
I just have to give it up to Pixar at this point for their Blu-rays. I remember the double disc 'Bug's Life' being one of the first really amazing DVDs, and here they are again, upping the ante with the new format. Just great. This two-disc set is just awe inspiring. The only thing it's really missing is some kind of promotional art gallery, showcasing the different sketches and posters and whatnot. Also, I'd like to praise the ease and elegance of the menu design - everything is really fluid and easy to navigate. Also worth noting is that this disc is Region "A" locked.
In addition to the Blu-ray, the four disc set also comes with a DVD of the film and a digital copy.
This is, if not the single greatest Blu-ray release of the year thus far, then one of the greatest Blu-ray releases of the year. I mean, 'Up' has it all - superb AV, a wonderful host of extras in HD, some nice exclusives, and not to mention one of the best films of the year, a profoundly moving comic fantasy that you will revisit over and over and over again. This is one that grandparents and young tykes can watch together, with the same amount of enjoyment. 'Up' is a truly wonderful film and this is a release that lives up to that accomplishment. It's a must own for sure.