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Muscle Shoals

Even if the Muscle Shoals sound isn't on your iPod, you'll like seeing where it came from —Marty Mapes (review...)

Etta sings in Muscle Shoals

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For the most part, Up soars.

The Spirit of Adventure

Up’s first act is absolute perfection. It revolves around two kids, Carl and Ellie, a boy and a girl enamored with the exploits of Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer, a legend in his own right), a renowned globetrotter whose latest adventure, in Paradise Falls, “a land lost in time,” has reached a new level of excitement.

Paradise Falls ain't what it used to be
Paradise Falls ain’t what it used to be

In something of an homage to King Kong, Muntz is seen in old, scratchy black-and-white newsreel footage unveiling his latest discovery to an enraptured theatre audience.

Bouncing off the walls with giddy childhood enthusiasm and robust imagination, Carl and Ellie dream out loud about the adventures they want to experience.

From there, the movie moves into a truly magical vignette of Carl and Ellie growing up — and old — together. It’s a marvelous piece of wordless, yet eloquent, storytelling. The images and the faces tell all.

Along the way, they drop spare change into their “adventure fund jug,” watching it add up as their financial source for grand expeditions. But then life takes its due course. The house needs repairs along with this, that and the other thing. There goes the fund. Time marches on.

Then Ellie dies. It seems the couple with dreams of adventure must leave them as just that: Dreams.

Paradise Lost

Perhaps Up ‘s biggest problem is its first act is so good, it can’t sustain its own wild ambitions. The second act veers off course, almost literally going to the dogs.

That’s when the elderly Carl’s own big, spur-of-the-moment adventure feels more like a letdown than a highlight.

Carl (Ed Asner, Lou Grant himself), along with his unwitting child companion, Russell, makes it all the way to Paradise Falls in the most fanciful of fashions: A flotilla of balloons tied to Carl’s old house give flight to his comfy domicile. Carl was basically being forced out of his house anyway, with modern development inching right up to his front lawn.

Paradise Falls itself is cool, but the rest of the terrain is surprisingly bland. And it’s hard to comprehend how the only animals in the not overly-vegetative area are a pack of dogs and a flock of flamingo-like birds. A more fully realized environment would’ve been the expectation for Pixar.

There is a sense of disappointment in that second act. But, in retrospect, perhaps it’s another Pixarian social commentary. In The Incredibles, for example, li’l Jack Parr was told he wasn’t allowed to excel, he wasn’t allowed to be all he could be because all of the kids had to win. Of course, last year Pixar hit a new high water mark in Wall*E by taking a broad swing at all of humanity and showing the future of people: Lazy, stupid blobs.

Here, the message is something along the lines of being skeptical of the hype. The reality of Paradise Falls wasn’t all that exciting compared to those old newsreel stories. More importantly, though, Muntz played up his exploits and what he saw, gaining extraordinary wealth before being exposed as a fraud. Through it all, Carl learns to be his own hero rather than worshiping others as heroes.

Lighten Up

Carl is his own hero rather than worshipping others
Carl is his own hero rather than worshipping others

The skeptical interpretation of Paradise Falls is being generous. There’s still plenty of evidence indicating Muntz really was one heck of an explorer. Besides, in the grand scheme of things controversy always dogs major historical figures.

Nonetheless, looking at Paradise Falls through that somewhat jaded prism takes the edge off that second act buzz kill. The third act exuberantly ratchets things right back up to the kind of fun, action-filled adventure Carl never thought he’d have.

And the third act is when a good share of the movie’s goofy, spunky humor is unloaded, leading right up to the perfect ending for good ol’ Carl. It’s a heart-tugger that strikes all the right notes and serves as a reminder that life itself is an adventure, no matter how far-flung the travels go.

Harking back to that parenting jab in The Incredibles, Up also delivers some good body blows to the overprotective, sheltered nature of today’s child-rearing practices. Poor, poor chubby Russell, a Wilderness Explorer (think Cub Scout or Webelo), has never explored the wilderness other than indoors. And the poor kid’s never built a tent thanks at least in part to an absentee father. (The end result of that little episode is a very funny mishap ending with a projectile tent and a bruised Russell, both in terms of ego and face.)

Those are the kind of observations that elevate Pixar’s movies above the usual fray of lowest-common-denominator animated fare. There’s an unusual “truthiness” to the characters and there’s not even a single joke about bodily functions.

Well, OK. There is one. Poor, poor chubby Russell is once again the butt of the joke, but it fits marvelously in the context of outdoor adventure traveling.