It was not a given that I would join the chorus of those praising the newest Pixar offering, Up. I’ve liked most Pixar films—usually more in part than in whole—and been respectfully indifferent to the others. All in all, I’ve tended to find them over-praised, despite their undeniable merits, which are often considerable. However, along comes Up, and with it a Pixar picture that is fully worth whatever praise anyone cares to bestow on it.
That it is also pretty much the vision of two men—Pete Docter and Bob Peterson—is, I suspect, a factor. I can find no other Pixar movie that doesn’t boast at least three writers, and usually a battery of them. It’s probably not coincidental that the most recent other American animated film that I’ve truly treasured—Lilo & Stitch (2002)—was also the vision of just two guys, and was not a film by committee. I submit that there’s a lesson to be learned from this—and if Up is the success it deserves to be, maybe the lesson will be learned.
You’ve probably seen the trailers for Up—the folks at Disney have taken care of that—but if ever a film was not fully represented by its trailers, Up qualifies. Yes, it is the story of crusty 78-year-old Carl Fredricksen (Edward Asner) flying away in a house to which he’s attached thousands and thousands of helium balloons. And yes, he inadvertently takes along a Boy Scout—or more correctly, a Wilderness Explorer—named Russell (Jordan Nagai). You’ve probably also seen the easily distracted (at least by squirrels) “talking” dog, Dug (Bob Peterson).
What you’ve not seen is even a hint of the backstory that explains why Carl floats away in his house—something that takes up a good chunk of the film’s opening. Unlike most movies that take awhile to get to the situation you’re already aware of from the advertising, Up uses its setup to create Carl’s character—from childhood to romance to marriage to old age—and to explain the significance of the house itself, and why it would occur to his character to make his escape from society via balloons (he was previously a balloon vendor at the zoo). These scenes are among the most charming and touching in the film. You don’t often get to see just how the curmudgeonly old man got curmudgeonly, and you don’t often get it in such a way that you’re constantly aware of the young man and the boy inside the old man. You do here. The character resonates as a result, and is afforded an emotional depth that needs no recourse to easy manipulations.
That section—about which I’d prefer not to reveal specifics—is also brilliantly made (it strangely feels like a French film), largely without dialogue, and is as gloriously romantic as, say, Moulin Rouge! (2001), which its hillside scenes actually resemble. Its images often recall those from an old children’s book. At the same time, it carefully details the way in which life has a way of undermining the romantic dreams of youth (something that the film will turn on its head later), so the experience is bittersweet in the bargain. In fact, in many ways, it’s not that far removed from the recent old-age drama Cherry Blossoms.
What follows is, in many ways, more traditional, but no less engaging—and certainly no less beautiful in terms of breathtaking images (images that, for a change, really benefit from 3-D). The adventure aspect of the film is very effective—and they remembered to create a truly memorable villain in the deranged genius Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). The suspense is as good—often better—than that in live-action action movies, and the stakes feel genuine at every turn. And more amazing still, the comedy is actually funny.
If it sounds like I can’t find anything in Up to be curmudgeonly about, that’s because I really can’t. I suppose I could complain that Charles Muntz would have to be well over 100 to suit the film’s chronology—but, hey, the man’s an evil genius, so why not? The very fact that someone has dared to make a movie where two of the main characters—including the star—are well beyond retirement age is in itself a cause for celebration. That it’s such a remarkably good—even great—movie makes the celebration just that much sweeter. Rated PG for some peril and action.