At this point, noting that Pixar does great work is like noting sunsets are beautiful or water is wet. After 10 years and a series of films which at their worst are very good, redundant praise almost goes without saying. Still, praise can’t be avoided when year after year audiences are treated to stories from not only the best animation studio since Disney’s heyday, but inevitably some of the best films of their respective years. So let me say, I’ll be the first to happily propagate redundancy with this:
Pixar gets it. By consistently choosing unobtrusive sentimentality over cardboard characterization and humanistic warmth over cold, modern jokiness, Pixar imbues their 0’s and 1’s with story, life and detail unmatched by any other animation project this decade. Even with Pixar’s cartoonishly big-headed, narrow-bodied stylization—Up bestows more life and energy into their digital characters than real-life “up and coming star” Sam Worthington did in the whole of his Terminator debut last week.
That’s quite an assertion and I don’t mean to oversell this film but Up, while not Pixar’s finest, is truly a delight—a gentle gift you’re treated to the minute Up shares its palette of warm and vibrant colors that, forgive the prose, melt off the screen to wrap you in a familiar Pixar hug.
Up centers on the curmudgeonly Carl Fredrickson (voiced by lovable go-to cantankerer Ed Asner). As we quickly learn, Carl’s not a curmudgeon because he’s mean; he’s simply seen a lifetime of experience fade into accumulated memories being slowly worn down by time. He’s protective of these memories –particularly his wife and lifelong love Elie– and doesn’t want them handled with anything but a soft touch, desperately responding at one point with just the opposite to protect it.
Of course, Carl wasn’t always a codger. Up introduces Carl as a young kid full of hope and wonder as he meets a precocious and charming little girl in an old abandoned home– the kind of shanty ripe for playing out the idolized adventures of shared hero and daring explorer Charles Muntz (as voiced by Christopher Plummer). The two grow up, marry and through a tender and heartfelt montage, we see them turn the shanty into a home, subsequently following the couple through a life of wins and heartache as they nurture Elie’s childhood dream: to visit a mysterious waterfall in South America– a destination Carl’s crossed his heart to deliver her. As is the case so many times, old age overtakes their dreams and a lonely reality sets in for Carl.
It’s here Carl puts his years as a balloon salesman to the test and seeks to fulfill his promise to Elie. As if he’s planned it all along, Carl makes his escape from infringing urban development via thousands of cheerful bobbing balloons tied to his house— but not before an introduction to a cherubically rotund, merit-badge/campout-loving little boy (who, incidentally, has never ever camped) named Russell. Inadvertently taken on the ride to South America while stopping by for an unannounced visit, Russell soon meets up with an over sized bird and a “talking” (thanks to a nifty collar gadget) dog owned by a familiar explorer from the past. The dog, Dug, turns out to be the most endearingly accurate caricature of a canine ever have put to screen, Lassie included, thanks in part to the cheerful voice talent of co-director Bob Peterson (who also voiced Mr. Ray in Finding Nemo and Roz in Monsters, Inc.).
Belying its own charm, Up not only succeeds by way of its extraordinarily likable characters, but in its surprising real-world depth. Its first act plays almost entirely on adult themes, which may feel strange at first coming from an “animated” movie, but always feels incredibly organic. Up certainly has enough levity to satiate the kids in the audience, yet I was immediately struck with how the story immediately touches on topics of loss, connection and real, lasting love.
Not to worry, adventure and laughs ensue—but when the adventure begins, it’s entirely incidental, feeling less like loud and zany Monsters vs. Aliens and more like fanciful 80’s Spielberg. Even when dogs start flying biplanes and the first genuine moments of Pixar villainy and peril since The Incredibles are introduced, Up has so earned audience investment that the fantastical nature of it all gets a quick pass.
This is in large part thanks to the penchant for understanding human connection that director Pete Docter, who also directed Monsters, Inc. and wrote Wall-E, sprinkles liberally but not overbearingly throughout his work. Whether it’s the tender moment at the end of Monsters, Inc.., (“Kitty?”), or one of several such affecting moments in Up, Docter knows the valuable tool of letting emotion and what’s not necessarily seen tell the story itself.
As to be expected, the animation and attention to detail here is astounding, demanding additional viewings to simply soak it all in. From the iridescent luminance of the balloons as they pass through sunlight to the individual wobble of beads hanging off a shirt to dirt under fingernails, there’s no sense of realism that’s left unattended. Even Russell’s lisp is built into the facial animation. Adding to the charm is Star Trek/Ratatouille composer Michael Giacchino’s score– a bouncy, old-timey soundtrack that lifts the spirits as quickly as Carl’s balloons.
I’m effusively gushing here, but once again, Pixar has shown storytelling and audience appreciation as its end goal, using all the tools of its trade to enhance the viewing experience as a whole.
Up isn’t an animated movie, it’s a film– animation is just the medium Pete Docter and the Pixar team has chosen to tell it. And through it all you’ll be warmly reminded, as Carl is, that life’s adventures aren’t in that far-off destination, but in the enjoyment and experience of those you dream it with.