If you should ever find yourself about twenty minutes into a movie that you realize was a mistake (say, Drag Me To Hell), and then find yourself presented with the incredibly fortunate diversion of a pulled fire alarm, we recommend you do what we did on Saturday night: Use all the commotion and hubbub to steal across the lobby and over to the other hall so you can slip unnoticed into the 10:10 showing of Up. (If you time it well, you will enter the theater right as the previews start.)
Up is the latest offering from Pixar, which can seemingly do no wrong. We ruffled some feathers when we said that we found WALL-E to be a bit underwhelming. (We don’t remember the exact wording of his epithet, but Matthew Leathers essentially questioned if we had a soul.) The wordless first half hour of that film, with its beautiful panoramic shots and precision of small, emotional detail, was a wonder. After that it got fairly conventional.
Up is 96 minutes of imaginative and inspired moviemaking. It begins with a young boy, Carl, captivated by a movie theater newsreel of an explorer named Charles Muntz (voiced, menacingly, by Christopher Plummer). Carl’s appetite for adventure and exploration is duly whetted, and on his way home from the theater he meets someone else who shares that passion, a tomboy named Ellie. The movie immediately jumps into a montage of their life together, beginning with their wedding and moving successively through stages of joy, surprise, grief, routine, loss, companionship and death. Those two minutes are a small marvel, and a movie unto itself. (David Denby calls it “one of the most moving animated episodes ever made.”) We’re not ashamed to say we were both teary at the end of it.*
The movie, like the widowed Carl’s spirits, lifts off after he ties thousands of helium balloons to his house. He sets off for Paradise Falls in South America, where he and Ellie always dreamed of exploring. Only after he’s airborne does Carl discover he has a co-pilot: a young, earnest, eager-to-please Wilderness Explorer named Russell. It’s a testament to the writers that you can appreciate how annoying and tiresome Russell can be without actually finding him annoying or tiresome. His enthusiastic idealism is a fine corrective for the grumpy, cantankerous Carl, who gradually warms up to Russell as they try to land, and then drag, his house to the precipice of Paradise Falls.
Before they get there, they are intercepted by a strange, flightless bird (Russell dubs it “Kevin” even though it turns out to be a she) and four dogs in hot pursuit. The dogs, it turns out, can speak, thanks to collars which transmit their thoughts into words. One dog, the vicious ringleader, has the misfortune of his collar settings being switched to a chipmunk voice. He barks orders but the other dogs can only laugh at him. Another dog, Dug, becomes a helpful if dense sidekick, constantly sidetracked by squirrels.
There are so many winning sequences that it’s hard to keep track. One of the strangest (and funniest) comes at the end when Russell slides and squeaks across an airship window. The gag starts funny and only gets funnier, as the filmmakers stretch it out for what seems like forever. (Denby got a kick out of this moment too.)
Finally, we should qualify our reaction to Drag Me To Hell. It may, in fact, be an equally brilliant movie, albeit of a very different ilk.* One of us would have been thoroughly enjoying it except that he knew the other was not, and that the evening ahead — indeed, the next several weeks — might be spent locking and re-locking doors, investigating unusual noises and assuring his lovely wife that no demonic gypsy woman is really intent on dragging her to hell. Perhaps we simply weren’t in the Sam Raimi, horror-spoof frame of mind. (Perhaps one of us never will be.) The other, however, will gladly see this movie with anyone who wishes to behold the sight of a toothless, deathless, forehead-stapled Lorna Raver menacingly sucking on Alison Lohman’s chin just seconds before Lohman shoves a ruler down her throat. It’s not exactly uplifting, but it sure is funny.
* = As Kenneth Turan said (somewhat feistily) in his review on NPR, “If parts of Up don’t bring a tear to your eye, I just don’t want to hear about it.”
** = Ben’s brother Dan sure thought it was brilliant when he texted this: “You got to see drag me to hell! you will poop yourself!”