Up Blu-ray Review

When we first meet recently-widowed Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner) in the new Disney/Pixar comedy adventure Up, he is about to lose his home to building developers and be forced into a retirement home by the courts following an accidental altercation. But before that happens, Carl decides to fulfill a lifelong dream he and his late wife Ellie shared, but never got to fulfill, of exploring the world. By tying thousands of balloons to his house, Carl and his house liftoff and head to Paradise Falls, a secluded spot in South America.

Shortly after takeoff, Carl discovers that he is not alone: an overly optimistic 8-year-old wilderness scout named Russell (Jordan Nagai) has unintentionally stowed away on the former balloon salesman’s porch. Unable to turn back, the odd couple continues south. Upon arrival, the two discover that they are not alone. They meet the once-legendary explorer – and Carl’s former childhood hero – Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) and his pack of ‘talking’ dogs. Muntz, in exile for decades, has been in Paradise Falls hunting for a rare bird, one that Carl and Russell encountered upon their arrival and have since befriended and nicknamed ‘Kevin.’

As written by Pete Docter (Monsters Inc.), Bob Peterson and Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) and co-directed by Docter and Peterson, Up delivers everything we have come to expect from a Pixar Studios film. The story’s concept is both imaginative and cleverly executed while the animation is, as you would expect, breathtaking. The vocal performances by the entire cast is perfect, be it Asner, Nagai, Plummer or Peterson as Dug the Dog (my new favorite Pixar character). Each actor’s vocal performance helps enhance the story’s wonderfully-realized characters even further.

While the movie has plenty of laughs and adventure for the entire family, Up offers more, much more, for the viewer than most of the CG-animated ilk that has come out in 2009 combined. The level of emotional honesty that emanates from Up is significant. The examination of lost dreams and letting go of your past is deeply touching, and help give the film an emotional heft that not only places it among the young animation studio’s best works, it makes most live action films from this year seem, well, cartoonish in comparison.

For a Pixar film to have heart and emotional depth is no big surprise. Every Pixar release has contained both (yes, even Cars). Yet few reach the level that Up does. Peterson, Docter and McCarthy do a fantastic job at setting up Carl’s back story via a touching and ultimately heartbreaking sequence at the beginning of the film, one perfectly backed by Michael Giacchino’s wonderful score. This quick, mostly wordless section that covers the lifelong relationship of Carl and Ellie may very well be the emotional pinnacle of both Pixar and Disney’s output thus far. The cast and crew of Up never lose sight of what really makes the movie such a special experience: its humanity. This is a movie that not only deserves to be in the running for Best Picture, it actually deserves to win the award.

We know that the movie itself is superb, but does the Blu-ray match it, especially when it comes to how the film looks and sounds? Um…do you really need to ask? Two words sum it up best: demo material. Up was touted as Pixar’s first Digital 3-D release this past summer. On home video, only a 2-D version is available. While it was kind of nice to experience the 3-D in the theaters, I am more than happy that only a 2-D version is included on the disc. To be honest, the Digital 3-D’s colors weren’t all that vibrant, and the picture looked like the contrast was turned down far too much, which made the picture look a bit smoggy at times.

Those issues no longer exist. This is a perfect –at least to this reviewer- transfer. The colors on the 1080p/AVC encode are -wait for it- vibrant without being oversaturated, black levels are deep without being inky and the shadow and picture detail are jaw-dropping. One needs to look no further than the details on Carl’s shirts or Russell’s merit-badge sash then to see just how much detail the transfer brings out. This is a gorgeous, gorgeous transfer that you will bring out time and again (or at least until the next Pixar film hits Blu-ray) to demo the format to your friends.

Going toe-to-toe with the video is the audio. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, supported by a powerful LFE channel, surrounds the viewer with music and sound effects galore, all equally spaced without ever over-powering the center-channel dialogue, which is also as clear as a bell. In an interesting move, Disney has also included a 2.0 DTS-HD track, which also sounds good and will be useful for those late-night viewings where you do not want to wake up anyone else in the house or for that matter, your next-door neighbors.

Disney/Pixar has filled the Blu-ray release of Up with plenty of bonus material offering a fascinating glimpse into just how much preparation and work went into this film. All the video-based supplements are presented in 1080p High Definition to boot.

A note about spoilers: if you haven’t seen the film yet, skip over the last bullet point under the ‘Disc One’ section.

Disc One

Cine Explore – Disney’s picture-in-picture supplemental feature offers up an informative, feature-length audio commentary by Pete Docter and Bob Petersen. The duo offers an easygoing, entertaining commentary, full of tidbits on the production, its origins and features a multitude of production designs and behind-the-scenes video and photos.

Dug’s Special Mission (6:00) – SQUIRREL! An all-new animated short featuring Dug the Dog and Alpha, Beta and Gamma, Dug’s fellow talking mutts. The short is a small bit covering the events leading up to Dug meeting Carl and Russell. Dug is such a funny, adorable creation, and the short makes for a funny and welcome addition to the Up universe.

Partly Cloudy (6:00) – The animated short that preceded Up in theaters tells the tale of how clouds are responsible for creating babies, kitties, puppies, etc., and how one smaller cloud is responsible for making baby porcupines, alligators and other creature infants that one unfortunate stork is stuck delivering.

Adventure Is Out There (22:17) – This 22-minute documentary chronicles the production crew’s trip to Venezuela to explore the Tepui, a remote region that features some of the oldest exposed rock on the planet, has terrain similar to the moon or Mars, and appears to have its own weather system (which stranded six crew members for a few hours during a nasty storm). The travels and observations of the crew helped create the film’s Paradise Falls, and this doc features some truly breathtaking vistas from not only the Tepui, but also from Angel Falls, a waterfall so tall that the water actually evaporates before it hits the ground.

(SPOILER ALERT) Alternate Take: The Many Endings of Charles Muntz (4:58) – It is not often that a bad guy is killed off in either a Disney or Pixar animated production, but every so often it does happen. Prior to sending the disgraced elderly adventurer to meet his eventual fate, the filmmakers came up with several alternate ways to either keep Muntz alive or finish him off. Among the alternates: a last-minute redemption, a variation on the garden maze sequence from The Shining, a ‘death by house’ sequence and an opposite version of the ‘death by balloon,’ where Muntz gets pulled up instead of down to his death. I kind of liked the Shining one, but am glad they decided to go with what they had in the film. (END OF SPOILERS)

Disc Two

Documentaries – More like featurettes due to their length, this collection of behind-the-scene specials look at various production aspects, their preparation, and production. The mini-docs are:

  • Geriatric Hero (6:24) – How the Pixar team developed their 78-year old action hero and the efforts they went through to accurately convey his moves.
  • Canine Companions (8:26) – Squirrel! Point! A look at the pack of Muntz’s talking dogs.
  • Russell: Wilderness Explorer (9:00) – The evolution of the adventurous eight-year old and a quick look at the young actor who voiced him.
  • ‘Our Giant Flightless Friend, Kevin (5:04) – the Ostrich-looking fictional bird is the focus here, and the connection the character had with each of the main characters.
  • Homemakers of Pixar (4:35) – Or The House That Carl and Ellie Built. From early sketches and models to the various color and lighting schemes, this short takes a closer look at the core of Carl and Ellie’s lifelong relationship.
  • Balloons and Flight (6:27) – Docter and company discuss the use of the helium balloons to take Carl’s house to Paradise Falls, as well as the seven decades-old dirigible that Muntz and his dogs call home.
  • Composing for Characters (7:41) – The best of the featurettes, this one focuses on composer Michael Giacchino as he creates the film’s soundtrack and discusses the themes created for the characters.

Worldwide Trailers – There are two trailers here, both in 1080p and 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround. Labeled “Theatrical Trailer 2” (1:48) and “Theatrical Trailer 3” (2:29), these are basically the second American teaser trailer (the first teaser can be found on the BD release of Wall-E) and the final theatrical trailer, also for the United States.

Up Promo Montage (6:00) – This is a humorous collection of promo spots that were created for television use last spring prior to theatrical release. If I am not mistaken, they appeared on ABC during broadcasts of other Pixar films such as Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo. Each one runs anywhere from ten to sixty seconds and are worth a peek.

Alternate Scene: Married Life (9:15) – The title says it all; this is an alternate version of the Carl and Ellie relationship montage. This version is presented in storyboard form and backed by Giacchino’s theme for Ellie. This segment begins with Docter, Petersen and a couple of story editors explaining the alternate approach to the scene and why it was replaced.

Global Guardian Badge Game – This BD-Live family game has you brushing up on your geography. It’s a fun game for kids and families to play, and it is a great way to get kids to hone their geographical knowledge. The BD-Live access on my PS3 was instantaneous.

A SD DVD copy of the film and a digital copy of the movie for portable devices and computers are also provided in this 4-disc set.

I thought it would be hard for Pixar to top Wall-E, my pick for the best movie of 2008, but they have done so with UP. This is a smart, deeply affecting tale that will win over everyone from eight to eighty. If you are like me and cannot make that Great Escape you find might yourself dreaming about every so often, Up makes for an ideal 96-minute substitute. It is a cinematic journey –and Blu-ray presentation – that will definitely send your spirits soaring…up, and comes very highly recommended.

– Shawn Fitzgerald

Shop for Up on Blu-ray at a discounted price from Amazon.com.

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