“The time just seemed ripe to do a story about a senior citizen.” That’s “UP” co-director Bob Peterson speaking on this DVD’s commentary track. I don’t think I can imagine someone saying that at any other animation studio in Hollywood, given their single-minded preference for aliens, monsters, robots, animals, and ogres. Sure, some of those films are excellent, but Pixar has shown us time and again that you can do more than that with animation. Why not think different, as former Pixar CEO Steve Jobs would say?
All you have to do is look at the first 20 minutes of “UP” to see that idea in action: We’re introduced to Carl, an idealistic, shy little boy who meets tomboy Ellie. Both of them share a love for famous explorer Charles Muntz, and that connection leads to a marriage unfortunately bereft of children. They plan to travel to Paradise Falls in South America, where Muntz had experienced his greatest failure when he was accused of hoaxing the bones of a flightless tropical bird. That trip never happens, and Carl winds up alone and full of regret. Then he crosses a line – in a harsh scene that only Pixar would try – and he’s threatened with removal from his home.
If you’ve seen the advertising materials for the film, you know what he does next. Russell, a Wilderness Explorer trying to get his Assisting the Elderly badge, inadvertently comes along for the ride, and soon the pair embark on an adventure across treacherous tepui mountains. They meet an elderly Muntz, who is desperately seeking a live specimen of that flightless tropic bird; he now has an army of dogs who can talk thanks to special collars he invented for them. Unfortunately, the years haven’t been kind to Muntz, and in his paranoia he thinks Carl is trying to capture the bird before he can.
Like Pixar’s previous nine films, “UP” is full of memorable characters, poignant scenes, and pitch-perfect moments that make us laugh and even tear up a little. The studio doesn’t hit it out of the park every time they come up to bat, but they have yet to strike out. If you’re curious how they pull it off, the commentary track with Peterson and fellow co-director Pete Docter delves deeply into the storytelling. Whereas a lot of animation people prefer to talk about the technical aspects of their work, Docter and Peterson spend just as much time explaining how they developed the story. That’s the Pixar secret right there.
Among the other bonus features, “The Many Endings of Muntz” delves into similar territory, explaining how the team spent a lot of time trying to figure out the right way to dispatch the film’s antagonist. “Adventure is Out There” chronicles a Pixar research trip taken to the real tepui mountains in South America and the new short film “Dug’s Special Mission” fills in how the dog Dug winds up meeting Carl and Russell. The theatrical short “Partly Cloudy” is also included; I’m glad Pixar continues to produce those.
Over on disc two, you’ll find a digital copy of the film. In an ongoing trend, the Blu-ray release offers even more bonus features, but it comes in a four-disc combo pack that includes the standard DVD release too, so you can pick that up if you’re planning to upgrade to high-def eventually. The two- and four-disc versions are the same price, so it seems like a no-brainer to go with the latter even if you don’t have a Blu-ray player yet.