Pete Docter doesn’t waste time. The day after he graduated from college, he started work at Pixar (source) and he's been a key player at the animation studio ever since. In addition to co-directing Up, he also helmed Monsters, Inc. and Inside Out, but Up was the first-time Docter directed a movie tag team style, bringing another Pixar heavyweight, Bob Peterson, onboard. Up may be Peterson’s sole directing credit, but he’s served as a storyboard artist or writer for a plethora of Pixar flicks, including Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Ratatouille.
What we’re saying is that with Docter and Peterson in charge, Up’s production was in good hands, and they have the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film to prove it.
Pixar mainstays Pete Docter and Bob Peterson have had their hands—and sometimes their voices—in every movie Pixar has ever produced, but no Pixar flick has their creative stamp on it like Up does. Docter and Peterson not only wrote the film’s Oscar nominated script, but they also directed it.
Oh yeah, and Dug? That’s Peterson voicing the squirrel-obsessed pup.
For a movie that was written and directed by one of animation’s most dynamic duos, it’s ironic that the idea for Up’s script came from Docter’s Garbo-esque desire to be alone. “Basically, I’m not a guy that loves being around people all day. There’s times where I just need to get away. This film is born of that feeling,” Docter confessed to MTV News. “Sometimes, you just need to get away from everything" (source).
We hear you, Pete.
Docter and Peterson started penning Up in 2004. When Peterson took a break to work on Pixar’s Ratatouille, Docter brought in Tom McCarthy, a screenwriter whose 2003 film The Station Agent the writers had been using as a touchstone. “I needed someone to spark off creatively,” Docter told PopMatters, “and so I asked Tom if he could recommend any writers he knew that might want to work on the film. He said, ‘How about me?’” (source). McCarthy only worked on Up for three months, but he definitely made a mark on the script—namely, Russell. The roly-poly Wilderness Explorer was all his idea.
The final draft of Up’s script is a one-two punch of hilarious hijinks and heartbreaking emotion. For an animated family flick, it’s complex and mature, tackling thoroughly grown-up subjects like aging, loss, and loneliness. “Walt Disney wasn't making films for kids. Neither were the Muppets,” Docter told Cinema Blend’s Katey Rich. “A lot of the great, really cool films, they weren't making them for kids” (source). Up’s secret weapon is its sophistication: its layered, refined script appeals to moms and dads just as much as it does to their rugrats.
It's just that the adults are the ones sobbing in the back row.
You can’t spell “Pixar” without “artist.”
Okay, so that’s not technically true, but Pixar is the rare movie studio where the artists are in charge. “These movies come from the heart of every director,” explains Pixar veteran John Lasseter, who’s directed several Pixar joints, including Toy Story and Cars. “There are life experiences we all had that find their way into these movies” (source). The result? A playful, yet refined sense of fun (coupled with mad technical genius) that’s become synonymous with Pixar.
Pixar’s road from struggling computer company to blockbuster movie studio wasn’t all balloons and waterfalls. They started out making computers for hospitals in the 1970s (source).
…not exactly whimsical stuff.
Enter George Lucas —you know, the bearded mastermind behind Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Pixar partnered with Lucasfilm in the late ‘70s and shifted its focus from computers to graphics. In 1986, Steve Jobs, who officially gave the company its name, bought Pixar and they started cranking out short films. Those innovative animated shorts caught the eye of a little production company called Walt Disney Pictures—maybe you’ve heard of them?—who made a deal with Pixar to produce one computer-animated flick per year. In 2006, Disney bought Pixar outright. (Source)
Basically, Pixar has always gotten by with a little help from its friends.
Up fits the mold of Pixar’s fun-filled, visually stunning repertoire. It’s hilarious, yet heartwarming. Still, the studio executives were anxious about its debut. For starters, there’s the fact that film stars a senior citizen. Second, at the time, Up’s $175-million-dollar production budget made it one of Pixar’s most expensive movies ever.
Finally, when Up was released in 2009, the live-action side of Disney Pictures was having a less-than stellar year. Remember the Jonas Brothers? Nick, Joe, and the other one? We want to say…Larry? Their 3-D concert movie didn’t exactly draw pop music fans out in droves, and the studio’s other high-profile release, Confessions of a Shopaholic, underperformed, as well (source). Simply put, Pixar felt the pressure to maintain their awesome track record, and their parent company, Disney, needed a big, fat hit.
So Pixar did what every nervous film studio dreams of doing: they went to the French Riviera.
Up opened the 62nd Cannes Film Festival in 3D…and was a smash. Why do we care? Well, first, opening the festival is a huge honor that the thoroughly French film festival only bestows upon thoroughly French films.
Second, animated films—and ones in 3D, no less—never, ever open Cannes.
“As I have so often said, if Cannes ever opens its festival with a 3D animated feature, I'll believe houses can fly,” quipped Roger Ebert in his Up review. “I am a doubter no longer” (source). Those higher-ups at Pixar and Disney quickly became believers, too. Up’s success at Cannes calmed their fears and proved that Up was ready to charm the pants off audiences worldwide.
While Up may feature an unconventional elderly star, the movie sticks to Pixar’s winning formula as a production company. It’s “challenging, emotionally and narratively, but it trusts viewers to keep up,” explains the A.V. Club. “Pixar has never been interested in talking down to children or their parents” (source).
Up is Pixar at its finest: it brings the funny, it brings the emotion, and it wraps it all up in a sophisticated, technologically dazzling package.
Anything’s possible with animation. Want your main character to down fifteen milkshakes and not gain a pound? Done. Want your main character to live in a house made out of boogers? Easy. Want your main character to be a talking cloud of Frosted Flakes dust? You got it. Sure, CGI can accomplish a lot in a live-action film these days, but in an animated flick, the only real restriction is the animator’s imagination.
The fact that Up is an animated movie enables all sorts of flights of fantasy, and we’re not just talking about Carl’s floating house. Everything from Carl’s boxy character design to Muntz’s massive, opulent airship can be chalked up to Up’s animated mode of production.
Carl’s world may not reflect the real world, but that just makes it all the more entrancing. “That’s one of the cool things that I really love about animation,” says co-director Pete Docter, “that you know it’s all phony. You know it’s just a bunch of drawings or in our case computer images, but when it’s done well, you totally get sucked into it.” The process of animation allows viewers to believe that a house really can fly, and that dogs can pilot airplanes.
Of course, drawing an entire movie—whether it’s by hand, on computer, or a mix of both—presents its own set of problems. “Even with the way people move: we have challenges in terms of ‘Okay, Carl needs to get from this side of the screen to that side of the screen,’” Docter explains. “You don't want to sit there for twelve minutes and wait for him to cross, but that's what it takes. He moves slow. We're having to figure out what's the most entertaining way [to watch an old man walk across the screen].” Animators have to make tough calls like these all the time, but that’s just because they have free rein to animate their universe however they please.
Ultimately, the possibilities that animation presents as a mode of production outweigh the limitations, and Up tells the story of Carl’s fantastic voyage with a surprisingly traditional bent. You’re not throttled with garish colors and zany sound effects. “Most animation bombards the viewer with sensory overload and sees what sticks,” explains Empire’s Ian Freer, “but Up is more classical in approach.” The animators exercise restraint because Carl’s story is bursting with complicated emotions, like love, loss, and loneliness. With Up, co-directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson create a delicate balance of wacky hijinks and heart-busting sentiment that’s rarely seen in what, at the end of the day, is still a cartoon.
Composer Michael Giacchino has one seriously diverse résumé. In addition to scoring Up and other Pixar hits like The Incredibles and Ratatouille, he also created the music for Star Trek, Jurassic World, and television’s Lost. From Carl to Spock to mysterious smoke monsters, it seems there’s no soundtrack Giacchino can’t summon.
With Up, Giacchino’s score strikes a unique tone: it’s sentimental, but never syrupy. As it waltzes around Carl and Russell’s adventure, it heightens the emotions on screen, but never whacks you over the head with them. “Michael Giacchino’s gorgeous music, invoking great Max Steiner scores from the ’40s and ’50s, steers the story’s emotional shifts with great elegance,” explains Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum. It’s sweeping, yet subtle, and, most importantly, and it never intrudes on Carl and Russell’s epic quest.
Giacchino’s artful contribution to Up’s story also sent him on his own heroic journey through the 2010 awards season. He snagged the Oscar, Golden Globe, Grammy, and BAFTA awards for Best Original Score. (Source) Not bad for a guy who started out scoring 16-bit video game soundtracks like Mickey Mania: The Timeless Adventures of Mickey Mouse.
That’s right: Disney and Giacchino go way back.
Up, like every Pixar flick, has a massive fan following, and the animation studio knows how to deliver the goods to its devotees—and we’re not just talking about plush Dugs and replica Russell backpacks.
Pixar films are famous for their fan-friendly Easter eggs. Not those food-coloring-coated suckers your dad hides in the backyard every spring: we’re talking about an assortment of nuggets and nods to other Pixar films. The production company stuffs all of their movies with clandestine treats for eagle-eyed Pixar buffs to discover with every viewing, and Up is no exception. Check it out:
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For more of Up’s Easter eggs, check out Slashfilm’s screen cap filled rundown or Movie Hole’s eye-opening video “Hidden Secrets & Easter Eggs of Up You Didn’t Notice,” and get ready to blow your friend’s minds.
Or, if you’re ready to tumble all the way down the Pixar rabbit hole, grab a peanut butter and anchovy smoothie and check out The Pixar Theory. Based on the conspiracy theory film fan Jon Negroni first posted on his personal blog, it posits that all of Pixar’s flicks, including Up, exist in the same chronological universe with a cohesive timeline and a central theme. Better make that PB&A smoothie an extra-large.