"Hear yee! Hear yee! The circus is back in town." Over the course of the last year and a half, it has become customary for the bigger studios to wheel out their upcoming monster franchises and show off at least twenty minutes worth of footage to any lingering press. Like a ringmaster enticing potential customers with pictures of the Incredible Alligator boy, the director will tempt and tease. And answer questions about their film afterwards in a town hall-like setting. This evening in beautiful Burbank, California, where it recently hailed for the first time since 1991, successful CGI animation director Pete Docter, responsible for such legendary Disney/Pixar films as Monsters Inc. (the one he helmed) and WALL-E (the one he co-wrote), unveiled forty-five minutes from his highly anticipated summer masterpiece in the waiting Up. At this point, you should be well versed in the film's storyline. An old man (played by Ed Asner) ties a thousand helium balloons to his house and floats off into the stratosphere. He is accompanied on this adventure by a young boy scout that accidentally stows away on his front porch. Together, they get into all kinds of crazy mishaps.
At this point, I could very easily offer an advanced review of the film. Forty-five minutes is an awful lot of footage to view from an eighty-minute cartoon as a preview. It's sort of frustrating, because I don't want to have to sit and wait through these same forty-five minutes all over again when Up gets a proper release on May 29th. I want to watch the ending right now. Damn it! And in Up's case, it truly is a stunning cinematic achievement that I didn't necessarily want to be whisked away from. Especially right in the middle of the second act. I was surprised at the emotional depth the film packs. There is a clear and definite reason why this old man has decided to float his house into the heavens, and its rendered in a deeply touching ten minutes that just might break your heart. Even I started to tear up, and I hardly ever cry during movies. We are introduced to Carl Fredricksen as a young boy. In a quick set of clips, we pretty much live through his life, and we see the love he holds for his wife. It could very easily be the animated prologue to Gran Torino, right before the funeral. Only instead of trading quips with a young Hmong boy and sharing a love for cars, Carl sets out to transplant his house on a waterfall in Venezuela. It was a dream he shared with his dearly departed spouse. Forced to move into a retirement home after cutting open a man's forehead with his walking cane (yes, there is blood), Carl decides that the only recourse is to tie a bunch of very colorful balloons to the inside of his chimney and drift himself into a better life. Unfortunately, he forgot he told young scout Russell to hunt for Snipes under the house. Thus, the young boy is also along for the ride.
The animation looks vastly different in style to the previous Pixar films of late. It is more simplistic and stylized. Cartoony, if you will. During the presentation, Docter named Dennis the Menace creator Hank Ketcham as an influence, and that certainly shows in the character design. The Pixar humor is in tact, and there is some rather neat business involving a thunderstorm that the house gets swept into. There's a real mystery about where this cranky old man and his scout companion are headed, and I don't feel like ruining it for you. Sure, you can read about some of the craziness they encounter on other sites and publications. But with this particular adventure, it wouldn't really be fair to give up the ghost. I'm a little surprised that Disney/Pixar has decided to leak as much of it as they have. Up is destined to be as well received and beloved as every other film that has come out of their studios. These films can pretty much get stamped with a guarantee of excellence at this point. If you've bought into the brand, and you are already a fan, Up presents a whole new sort of unique project, yet it does not diviate at all from their trademark quality.
After the forty-five minutes of footage, Pete Docter got up in front of our audience and answered questions from the "so-called" journalists and bloggers in attendance. He wasn't really trying to sell us on the film. After the first act, you will definitely buy into Pixar's latest adventure. Hook, line, and sinker. Here is what Pete had to say:
Where did this idea come from?
Pete Docter: Basically, this idea came from wanting to get away. I don't know about you guys, but at the end of the day, I have had too many meetings and talked to too many people. I just want to run away and hide in a corner. I came up with this visual of a floating house, and it just seemed very poetic and lovely. Bob Peterson and I had also wanted to do a film with a grouchy old man, because it seemed really ripe with potential humor. It's a lot of fun, because he can be an absolute jerk, and you still like him. Old people get that license. From there, we started thinking about how the old man got in the floating house, and what lead him there. Where is he going? The ideas grew out of that initial idea.
The beginning is almost tragic, and then it quickly switches tone. Can you talk about managing that emotional depth with the humor?
Pete Docter: That was important. One reason was the fact that we get to such a wacky place. I felt that we needed a real foundation of emotion. For me, my favorite films have a really great balance of both emotion and humor. Walt Disney always talked about the fact that for every laugh there should be a tear. A man who was a great mentor of mine, Joe Grant, whom I worked with right here at Disney Studios, whom worked on such classic films as Dumbo and Sleeping Beauty, and worked all the way up until he was 97, asked, "What are you giving the audience to take home." So I looked to what I wanted to bring home. Sure, the jokes are funny, but they almost go out of your head. It's the emotional stuff that you carry around with you for weeks, and months, and even years after you see the film. We wanted to plant it that way. It was also important to care about why this guy wanted to get that house onto the falls. He needed some emotional weight. He needed something that the audience would really care about. So we worked really hard to make that something that was meaningful to both Carl and the audience.
What do you think the audience will take home with them?
Pete Docter: It's in the set up and the pay off. Carl worries that he missed this adventure. When we talk about adventure, we think of travel, and meeting people, and going to all of these wild places. Seeing far out locations. What he realizes is that he already had the greatest adventure. And that was the wonderful life he had with his wife. When I think back on great events in my own life, it's always these small little moments that resonate. Having hot chocolate with my kids. Or cleaning out the basement with my wife, and we get to laughing. Little moments like that.
Is there a reason why we didn't see any of this in 3D?
Pete Docter: Well, we're still working on that. This will be the first film that we present in 3D, and its all looking really good. We just haven't gotten it ready to get out there, yet.
What does the 3D bring to the film?
Pete Docter: It adds a sort of depth. One thing that was important to me was not to distract you from the story. Some 3D movies really relish the 3D. They do a lot of booga-booga reaching out at you. With this type of film, we are trying to make it as subtle as it can be. It adds to the depth of the environment. You walk through the jungle, and you can feel your hair go back. When you step up to the edge of that cliff with Carl, and he sees Paradise Falls, it adds a real richness there. We are treating the screen as a window, and we are looking in. We are treating it like live theater. Almost as though you are watching it play out on a stage.
Do you consider it to be as big in scope as Wall-E?
Pete Docter: It is a totally different film. I feel like it is life encompassing. We are trying to capture what life is really about. Hopefully, we succeeded.
Where did the idea for the dogs come from?
Pete Docter: It came from sitting around, wondering what your dog is thinking. You give them lines. You say what they might be saying. We tried to incorporate that. We thought, "What if we really played that through. And instead of personifying them the way most cartoons do, what if we actually had what the dog is thinking? Or at least what we think they are thinking." That's where the idea for the talking collar came from. It's a translator as opposed to a transmitter. We didn't feel that had ever been done before. A lot of the stuff that you will see in this film is humor in truth. There aren't too many big slapstick gags. Its mostly humor that you will recognize as real. Hopefully that falls into that category, as wacky as it is. Maybe you will think, "Gee, that really is what the dog would say."
The film has an emotional foundation at the beginning. Does the film ever come back to that?
Pete Docter: Yes. To me, it is important as an audience member that this not be a fleeting thing. I really want it to land and stick with you.
Can you talk about the influence of Miyazaki and Don Quixote on the film?
Pete Docter: Yeah, that was one of the rumors floating around when we weren't saying much about the film. That this was a Don Quixote retelling. Which isn't true. Sure, that is a great story. But that was never a part of the development of Up. It is mainly a resurrection story. It's about a dead character that comes back to life. Hopefully you can tell where this is going. It is a lot like Rick from Casablanca or Scrooge from A Christmas Carol. It is a guy that was alive. And how dead he sort of becomes. Through this journey, he sort of comes back to life. And Miyazaki is amazing. I got the chance to work on a translation of Spirited Away. I worked with the actors, and I had to see the film over and over again. It was amazing how much rich detail there is. He does the same thing that we are trying to do here. Attention to small details. We want to completely put you in a space. Water falling in a puddle. Just little insignificant things.
Was it always your intent to have the relationship between Carl and his wife play like a silent film?
Pete Docter: It was something that we talked about early on. It's something that I do. This looking back to an era of Super 8 films. Watching them now, I find them more emotional than having video with sound. There is something about stripping that away that allows me to come into it more, and experience it. In developing this, I wanted to come at it in that way. You will notice that there are very few sound effects. Most of it is just music. I hope that it draws you into the film. This could be happening in real time, or it could be old Carl's memory of his life and love.
Why did you choose Venezuela?
Pete Docter: Early on, I thought about setting it on a tropical island. He needed to get stuck somewhere with this kid. He needed to be in a place where he couldn't just pawn him off or put him on a bus. For Carl to transform, he needs to get stuck with this kid. But we thought that there had been too many tropical island stories. We tried to think about what else we could do. We wanted something similar, and Venezuela seemed interesting. We'd never seen it before. We went down there and did some research. We camped out down there for a week. We painted and drew pictures.
Up will float into theaters on May 29th, 2009.