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Progress City Home Theater: Up (2009)

Up Blu-Ray packaging

For some time, we here at Progress City have wanted to review new releases of note from Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar. What better way to start, then, than the home video release of this year’s Pixar success, UP? The simple tale of a boy and his dog… and an old man… and a flying house… and a giant rare bird named Kevin… was released to stores last Tuesday. True to Disney’s recent pattern, it has been released in multiple formats: a bare-bones, single-disc DVD; a deluxe DVD with bonus features and a digital copy of the film on a second disc; and a four-disc package that includes the film and its extras on two Blu-Ray discs, a bonus DVD of the film for those yet to upgrade, and a disc containing a downloadable digital version of the film.

It’s nearly unthinkable that any reader of this blog will have yet to see this film, making any further review practically superfluous. Needless to say, it’s another in a long line of Pixar triumphs, and perhaps their most challenging yet. UP manages to thread a number of needles very successfully, making fools of the pundits who doubted Pixar’s ability to translate its esoteric premise into a successful family film.

There were many – mainly in the field of marketing – who questioned the premise of Pixar’s tenth feature, saying that there was no way people would turn out to watch a film about a senior citizen on what amounted to a suicide mission to reclaim lost love and dreams deferred. It wouldn’t sell toys, they said, and thus it would doubtless be a failure. But once again creativity trumped the deep insight of the business sector, and UP became Pixar’s second-highest grossing film to date. The film is emotionally wrenching yet still hilarious, containing that perfect level of pathos that made the animated films of Disney’s golden age so resonant. Pixar’s continuing unwillingness to pander to its audience made this family-friendly Fitzcarraldo a hit with audiences and critics.

The film, much like last year’s WALL-E, is most effective in its nearly-flawless first act. After an introduction to the young Carl Fredricksen and his future wife Ellie, we watch their life unfold through a masterfully-crafted yet wordless montage that conveys the successes and sorrows of their long life together. At its end, we’re left with the widower Fredricksen (Ed Asner) as a gruff and lonely 78-year-old who resembles the rumpled and crotchety Spencer Tracy of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Left alone in the home he and Ellie made together, and faced with the threat of eviction so that a mall can be built on his property (a conceit reminiscent of Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You, with visuals that strongly evoke the classic Disney short The Little House), the former balloon salesman concocts an improbable scheme to finally realize his and Ellie’s dream of seeking adventure in distant South America.

Carl’s plans are complicated, naturally, by a stowaway – young Russell, who proves relentless in his quest to earn his Wilderness Explorer merit badge for assisting the elderly. The filmmakers and actor Jordan Nagai earn a great deal of praise for making Russell a thoroughly believable character and in no way treacly or annoying. If Russell doesn’t remind you of a kid you’ve known (or were), then you haven’t met many.

Things grow increasingly perilous for our heroes upon their arrival in the isolated and tropical Paradise Falls; there are rare and endangered birds, talking dogs, and UP’s own version of Colonel Kurtz – Carl’s childhood idol, Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). Some of this material works better than the rest, especially the friendly speaking canine Dug (co-director Bob Peterson). Dug is perhaps my favorite character in any of the Pixar films, and he deserves special mention here. The ever-cheerful and good-natured dog is both hilarious and incredibly evocative for any viewer who has known a loyal, smart, yet scatterbrained pup. His animation is nuanced and amazingly insightful; any dog-lover will recognize his behaviors and moods at once. The character’s design, too, is pleasingly caricatured and just cartoony enough; this sets Dug above the other dog characters whose designs hew closer to realism and, I feel, are rather unsightly.

The film is not perfect, though; again, like WALL-E, most of its problems come in the third act when the story seems to get away from itself, ramp up the action, and get a little sloppy. When I saw UP in theaters, I came away convinced that the film didn’t need a villain. I still find this to be the case. Carl’s real enemy is his inability to reconcile with the past, and his imprisonment by the ephemera that has come to define him. These are problems with which I deeply sympathize and identify, but they’re things that Carl must himself overcome. It seems too easy to have him learn his lesson by comparing himself to Muntz, especially when Muntz descends so quickly into a rather clichéd and over-blown villain. Obviously Muntz’s path isn’t one to follow, but do we believe that Carl would have ever gone that far?

Despite the muddled third act – although who can quibble with an aged Spencer Tracy and Kirk Douglas wailing on each other while hanging from a zeppelin? – UP sticks the landing by satisfactorily wrapping up each character’s quest. It’s emotional, hopeful, and ever so completely Pixar.

The cast of UP

The DVD

As mentioned, UP has been released in three different editions for DVD and Blu-Ray. We shall examine these in turn, but first I have a general note about the releases. Pixar was long noted for the extremely high quality of their DVD releases, both in sound and image quality and amount of supplemental material. Their first DVD release, 1998’s a bug’s life, was seminal, as was its follow-up, the Ultimate Toy Box. At the time, DVDs were mostly the realm of film buffs and early-adopters. As prices dropped, a family market was created and the contents of new releases began to shift from targeting animation fans to targeting toddlers. Disney releases were hit the hardest; for a while, even box-office disappointments like Atlantis and The Emperor’s New Groove had received the deluxe treatment on their two-disc special editions (and thank heavens for it!). By 2002, though, the comparatively successful Lilo & Stitch was released with a rather barren single-disc offering and the age of collector-grade Disney releases was over.

Pixar releases, mercifully, stuck to a higher standard. In recent years, though, even they have dropped off with single-disc releases for Cars and Ratatouille. Extensive bonus features have been reserved for Blu-Ray only, but even those “deluxe” editions have slipped somewhat since the days of Pixar’s self-styled “sooper genius” editions. UP continues this trend with Pixar’s sparsest slate of extras yet, although what is on the Blu-Ray release is definitely worth a look.

Video & Audio

One area in which Pixar has never fallen short is that of picture quality. Their early releases were the first home video titles to benefit from direct digital transfers of the original elements. UP is no different, with spectacular transfers on both the DVD and Blu-Ray. Both are presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio; the DVD transfer is in anamorphic widescreen. Without the need for the tinted 3-D glasses used in theaters, the vibrant color palette of the film can be truly appreciated. It really pops on the screen, and even the lower-resolution DVD release features an exceptional level of color and detail.

The film sounds great, too; the Blu-Ray features a DTS-HD 5.1 track, as well as a Dolby 5.1 soundtrack in English, French and Spanish. The DVD offers Dolby 5.1 English and Dolby Surround 2.0 options, as well as something fairly unique and special – a descriptive audio track for the visually impaired.

Bonus Features & Various Editions

The three-tiered release strategy is thankfully easy to decipher, as each more expensive edition builds upon the contents of the lesser versions. So, let’s start at the bottom.

Standard, Single-Disc DVD

Up DVD packagingThe bare-bones DVD release only contains two bonus features – the theatrical short Partly Cloudy and the DVD-exclusive short Dug’s Special Mission.

Partly Cloudy – This short, which played in theaters in front of UP, is the charming tale of a besieged stork who is assigned to deliver some of nature’s less cuddly creatures. Delivered without dialogue, the short is a tribute to Pixar’s ability to create intense emotions and sympathetic characters through pantomime and the pure art of animation. (5:46)

Dug’s Special Mission – The new short serves as something of a prequel to Dug’s initial appearance in UP. As such, it’s less of a contained narrative and more of a series of scenes from the dog’s perspective. There are some quality gags, of course, and a surprisingly bittersweet tone and ending, but since I find anything featuring this character to be absolutely golden this was a can’t-miss for me. More Dug, please. (4:42)

Deluxe DVD + Digital Copy

Up Deluxe DVD packagingTaking the two shorts from the previous version and combining them with a few extras, this edition features a separate disc with a digital copy of the film for your home PC or mobile device. The added bonuses include:

Adventure Is Out There – If you’ve never appreciated the efforts that Pixar visual and story artists go to in the creation of their films, you will after this documentary featurette. To understand the world of their story, the Pixar artists trekked to the tepui plateaus of Venezuela. There, they scaled 2000-foot sandstone cliffs to explore these mile-high islands in the sky. Their adventures revealed an amazing world; the tepui contain bizarre and otherworldly terrain as well as an isolated and self-contained ecosystem. The climate is unpredictable, as well; having reached the top of Kukenán tepui via helicopter – their guides estimated that less than 100 people had ever visited the site – a storm descended that stranded several artists in a downpour. I’ll leave the terrible secret of their shelter for you to discover – an animator’s life ain’t easy. A great featurette. (22:16)

Alternate Scene: The Many Endings of Muntz – The closest this set gets to deleted scenes, this featurette discusses the various ways that the directors considered to get rid of their antagonist at the end of the film. It’s interesting to hear the filmmakers discuss the purpose of the villain in their films, but I think that some of the other concepts they explored for Muntz’s demise were more interesting thematically than the version they eventually chose. (4:55)

Audio Commentary – Director Pete Docter and Co-Director Bob Peterson provide the feature-length commentary track. I’ve only listened to excerpts so far, but the filmmakers pepper the track with lots of details about the film’s creative process and the various concepts that were created and discarded along the way. It illustrates how difficult the creative process can be, and how many iterations these films go through on their way to the screen.

Blu-Ray Edition + DVD + Digital Copy

Up Blu-Ray packagingThe most complete version of Up is this release, which combines two Blu-Ray discs (the film, and a disc of extras) with the deluxe edition DVD and a fourth disc with a digital copy of the film. The MSRP on this set is a very unfriendly $45.99 – especially shocking since all of its features should have been included on the lesser editions – but since the set can be found at an enormous discount at most online retailers it’s still the one to get. The features added in this edition include:

Blu-Ray Disc One

Cine-Explore – The audio commentary is the same as that on the DVD release, but on the Blu-Ray it’s accompanied by picture-in-picture visual elements that help illustrate the points that the filmmakers are discussing. It’s a good way to combine development art, story sketches, and behind-the-scenes footage with the film itself.

Blu-Ray Disc Two

Geriatric Hero – This featurette discusses the development of Carl Fredrickson, and the considerations involved in animating a senior citizen. (6:23)

Canine Companions – More Dug! This time, we see the work that animators did in studying both the appearance and behavior of dogs in order to create the canine inhabitants of Paradise Falls. (8:27)

Russell: Wilderness Explorer – In which is depicted the creation of Russell and how the animators worked with voice actor Jordan Nagai to develop the character. (9:02)

Our Giant, Flightless Friend Kevin – Since everyone else gets a featurette, why not Kevin? This discusses the inspiration behind and creation of the giant feathered fellow. (5:06)

Homemakers of Pixar – Much thought was given to the creation of Carl and Ellie’s home, and that’s discussed in this featurette. Designers and filmmakers incorporated many elements of their own grandparents’ houses, some of which are pointed out here. (4:35)

Balloons and Flight – From Carl’s balloons to Muntz’s dirigible The Spirit of Adventure, the element of flight is critical to the film. Filmmakers talk about the inspiration behind and execution of these elements. (6:26)

Composing for Characters – The various leitmotifs of the film’s score are discussed, as is their use throughout the film. (7:40)

Alternate Scene: Married Life – Discussion of and deleted elements from the montage of Carl and Ellie’s life. All great stuff to see. (9:12)

Up Promo Montage – Various interstitials created for different outlets to help promote the film. (5:51)

Worldwide Trailers – Includes two trailers for the film: Theatrical Trailer #2 (1:51) and Theatrical Trailer #3 (2:32). What about #1? The world may never know.

There’s also, as always, an interactive game for the kiddies – Russell’s Global Guardian Badge Game. But Progress City has a strict embargo against the interactive games. We shall say no more.

In Summary…

It’s a great movie. Although the extras are sub-par for a Pixar release, it’s still a great movie. Get the Blu-Ray combo pack, even if you don’t have a Blu-Ray player, and even though the typical Blu-Ray packaging irritates me as always. Just make sure you look around and find it somewhere that you can buy it at a price close to the plain vanilla DVD edition.

Ten films in, and Pixar is still knocking them out of the park. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Click To Buy: Single DVD, Deluxe DVD, Blu-Ray

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1 comment to Progress City Home Theater: Up (2009)

  • android.dreamer

    Very thorough review! I really don’t want to buy a disk. I’m waiting for Disney to release their purely digital format, so I can simply download the content I want and watch it via HMDI between computer and TV. I really would like to pick and choose the special features I want to watch from multiple Pixar films.

    As far as the third act, Pixar films have been very good, but they always look like they could have been better. They always start with the characters and then create a story around them. Then they do a bunch of production for that story and scrap it in the middle, like that whole story with the golden egg that never made its way into the film. Instead of constantly reworking story lines, if they could see a film from beginning to end, then I think it will end up better. Unless I’m mistaken, Toy Story 3′s story was left unchanged and was finished for voice acting earlier than expected.

    Off topic, if you get the highest score on Toy Story Mania, I think they should give you a small prize or at least a discount on your photo.

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