In an unprecedented move, Disney/Pixar has been previewing the first half of Up for journalists. Not quite complete, but you know what? It's a brilliant strategy (hearkening back to the incomplete Beauty and the Beast screening at the New York Film Festival back in '91), because this poignant comic adventure about an elderly widower who flies away in his house with balloons on a lifelong trek to South America with a young stowaway has the potential to be Pixar's best film yet. You think The Incredibles or Ratatouille or WALL•E deserved to be nominated for the big Oscar prize? There might even be more ammunition for Up because it's about real people confronting real problems, even if it's whimsical and fantastical ("humor in truth").
Following a presentation last weekend in New York during Comic-Con, director Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.) and producer Jonas Rivera hosted a similar event for Pixar's next animated feature (opening May 29) last night at Disney in Burbank.
We sat through 46 minutes and 17 seconds of Up, which Docter and Rivera described as a "partial love letter to the Disney films of the past": a cleverly caricatured world with a different shape language than WALL•E or any other Pixar film, for that matter -- a little softer and a lot more painterly.
In Up, a 78-year-old grouchy balloon salesman Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) is headed for a retirement home when he ties thousands of helium-filled balloons to his house and flies away to Paradise Falls in Venezuela. But his greatest adventure comes with a surprise: a clinging 9-year-old Wilderness Explorer named Russell (newcomer Jordan Nagai) tags along so he can earn his final merit badge to become a senior Explorer.
Up begins with a long prologue introducing us to a young Carl, as he yearns to be a great explorer like his idol, Charles Muntz, who, unfortunately comes under ridicule when his latest find, "The Monster of Paradise Falls," is deemed a fraud.
But then carrying a balloon on his way home one day, the shy Carl encounters a vivacious young girl named Ellie inside an abandoned house with the same idol worship of Muntz but with a lot more adventurous spunk than he possesses. It's the cutest meet-cute scene in quite a while, transpiring into love at first sight, as Carl and Ellie court, marry, fix up the house and move in. Their dream is to one day travel to Paradise Falls, but it proves to be an elusive one, yet their love never diminishes despite the setbacks they encounter throughout the years. And then, after an elderly Ellie passes away, Carl must cope with old age and living alone, creeping along with a walker, becoming more and more set in his ways and more and more irritable. He never forgets Ellie through the daily reminders inside and outside the house, until a corporation buys up the neighborhood and sets its sights on Carl's cherished home as well. He can hold on for only so long after an altercation forces his hand and he must make good on his lifelong dream, with the aid of his trusty balloons.
Yet, as we've seen in the trailers, high above the clouds, Carl discovers that he is not alone and is forced to make the trip with Russell, who's as chatty and indefatigable as Ellie. Then, once at the beautiful and dreamy Paradise Falls, their adventure begins in earnest and the action really kicks in, as the unlikely duo encounters some strange voice-enhanced guard dogs and a few other surprises...
Following the presentation, Docter and Rivera hosted a Q&A. I begin with my two questions followed by an excerpt of the remaining session.
Bill Desowitz: Would you address the influence of Miyazaki and Don Quixote?
Pete Docter: That rumor's been floating around [about our wanting to deliberately make a Don Quixote movie]. It certainly wasn't part of the development. It's a resurrection story, in a way... It's a lot like Rick from Casablanca or Scrooge from A Christmas Carol. We show how alive a guy was and how dead he becomes. It's [that kind of] journey...
And Miyazaki is amazing. And I got the chance to work on the [English] translation of Spirited Away and worked with the actors and got to see the film over and over, which is always amazing to see how much rich detail he has. He does the same thing that we're trying to do here, which is attention to small details, seemingly insignificant but that really place you in a space: water falling in a puddle or a frog or what have you.
BD: What about the enormous simulation challenge of creating such a variety of images and textures?
Jonas Rivera: There are 10,000 balloons in the canopy, with all of the strings that are attached to the hose. The computer scientists loved that when they saw the sketches...
PD: We also pushed for simplification like Hank Ketcham from Dennis the Menace, with great folds in the fabric... and noodley bits. Just simplify it down to one or two folds. It was a real technical challenge.
JR: It was, and [our tech guys] were so upset that they finally got the aprons on Ratatouille and the cloth on WALL•E. We can see whatever we want now. But we don't want it -- now we want it simplified and forget physics.
Q: Where did the idea come from?
PD: I don't know about you, but by the end of the day there are way too many people and way too many meetings. I just want to go and hide in a corner. So we came up with this visual of a floating house -- it was just very poetic and lovely. And then Bob Peterson [co-director and writer] and I had also wanted to do a film about a grouchy old man. It just seemed really ripe with potential. It's really fun because he can be an absolute jerk and you still like him, for some reason. So then we just started thinking, "Well, how did the old man get in the floating house? What led him there? And where's he going?" And it grew out of that thought experiment.
Q: The movie starts out almost tragically and then sort of changes tone. Can you talk about managing that?
PD: Well, that was important for two reasons: One, we get to such a kind of a wacky place that I felt like we need a real foundation of emotion... For me, my favorite films have this great balance of both... Walt Disney talks about "for every laugh there should be a tear" kind of a thing. And a guy who was a great mentor of mine, Joe Grant, who worked right here with Walt Disney back in the days of Dumbo and Sleeping Beauty and was working up until he was 97, always phrased it: "What are you giving the audience to take home?"
And for me, the things I take home -- yeah, the jokes are funny, but they kind of go out of your head -- it's really emotional. You carry it around with you for days and weeks and even years after you see the film. And so we wanted to plant it that way. It was also important just to really care about why is it so important for this guy to get the house to the falls. You needed some weight of something you really cared about, and so we worked really hard to make that back story something that was meaningful to Carl, and therefore the audience.
Q: What do you think the audience will take home?
PD: Well, I'm hoping... and this is something that becomes clear -- it's in the setup and it's in the payoff -- Carl worries that he missed this adventure. When we think of adventure, we think of exotic travel and wild places and meeting people and stuff. And what he realizes is that he actually has the greatest adventure, which was the wonderful life he had with his wife. And I think, for me, that's the thing. Most of the time, when I think back on great events, [the] things I remember, [are] these small little moments: Being with my kids having hot chocolate or cleaning out the basement with my wife and just get to laughing. Little moments like that. And that's what we tried to portray in the montage.
Q: Why Venezuela?
PD: Early on, I said we need somewhere where Carl can get physically stuck with this kid... for him to transform. And where else could we go for one of these tropical stories? And the thought of these Tepui [tabletop] mountains is so far out and interesting, and we've never seen it before. We went down there and did research... we camped out for a week and painted and drew and took pictures...
Q: What does 3-D add to the movie?
PD: I think it adds a sort of a depth. One thing that was important to me is to not distract you from the story. Some films... do a lot of ooga-booga, you know, reaching out. And for this type of film, we're trying very hard to make it as subtle [as possible]. It adds to the richness, to the depth of the environments. You walk through the jungle, and you can see all of these layers going back. And the space when you set foot on the edge of that cliff along with Carl, and he sees Paradise Falls, it adds a real richness there.
JR: I think the flying as well. They go up in the sky, and looking through the clouds and things, and that's one of the things we've done, and the way we're treating 3-D is [using] the screen as a window, looking in, as opposed to breaking things out into the theater. So it's sort of treating it like theater, where you're looking through at the stage almost, and it really gives it a nice warmth of depth.
Q: Are you worried about the public accepting the weird aspects?
PD: No, one of the things that we worked hard on with Carl -- even though it's this film about this man who's sharing this relationship with his wife and all this rich kind of real stuff -- he's basically three-heads high: a total cartoon. Something we tried to do throughout the film was to reach back [in the use of emotion and stylization] to a lot of the great films that we loved as kids: Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland.
Q: How did you balance the suspension of disbelief?
PD: Some of the criticisms that we got internally as we were developing it were that it felt too much like wild ideas from everywhere glommed together, so we worked very hard to make all the ideas connect. We also knew from the beginning that we were designing a film where a house floats away, so one of the design things that we could employ to make that believable with that sense of caricature and simplification. On WALL•E, we tried to take advantage of the photoreal to match the video of [Hello, Dolly!] On this one, we tried to go in the opposite direction and make it more caricatured. And even thought there are those details and textural lighting cues to make it more dimensional, it's quite a stylistic departure.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld.