Up: Pixar’s New Film is Heartfelt Magic (****)

Big-hearted Dug and the dreaded "cone of shame."
Big-hearted Dug and the dreaded "cone of shame."

There is a scene in Pixar’s new computer-animated film “Up” where the entire life, from youth to old age, of our grumpy, square-jawed, prune-faced protagonist, Carl Fredricksen (Edward Asner), is played out in a matter of minutes. Accompanied by composer Michael Giacchino’s (“Star Trek,” “Ratatouille”) gentle piano-based score, and without any dialogue, we catch a glimpse of Carl’s simple, stress-free and full-of-love life with his childhood sweetheart, Elie, who, at the end of the montage, passes away. It’s a moving scene that left the audience sitting in reverence. It left me not only marveling at the sheer visual beauty of the film, but also in complete respect for Pixar’s aptitude and confidence in storytelling. These guys get how it’s supposed to be done and they have the track record to prove it.

The story for “Up” was conceived back in 2004 by director Pete Docter (“Monsters, Inc”), who said the motivation for the story was escaping the rigmarole and stress of life, like Carl does in his balloon-powered house, especially when life becomes too irritating and hard to handle. While all of us, from kids to grandpas and grandmas, wish we could tap our heels and be transported far away from life’s troubles, the idea, especially when connected to an elderly character, seems far more mature and adult than your standard fare of poop and fart jokes most animation aims at kids. That’s what makes Pixar’s movies so fantastic: Laughs aren’t manufactured or forced, nor is any other emotion for that matter. Sure, as tale tellers, the screenwriters know when to pull the levers and push the buttons, but even so, every giggle, every tingle of the spine, every little lump-in-the-throat or tug of the heartstrings proceeds from the uncomplicated stories these magicians place on the big screen.

Like its predecessors, “Up” is a pretty simple story. The tale starts when Carl was a little boy. His childhood hero was Charles F. Muntz (Christopher Plummer), a Charles Lindbergh/Howard Hughes type of rogue adventurer, who was famous for piloting his massive air ship, The Spirit of Adventure, to hidden realms across the globe and returning with breathtaking artifacts. This is how a young, pudgy, four-eyed Carl meets his future wife, Elie (Elizabeth Docter).

Dug, Kevin, Russell and Carl: Coming to a kid's meal and toy store near you!
Dug, Kevin, Russell and Carl: Coming to a kid's meal and toy store near you!

We get the impression, even from an early age, that Carl is the silent, humble caretaker, while Elie, the redhead, is the fire and gusto in the relationship. In fact, whereas Carl is content in his favorite recliner, reading and holding Elie’s hand, it’s his wife’s dream to one day relocate to a towering waterfall deep in the Venezuelan jungle. But as I mentioned before, time goes by, life happens, and soon Carl is living alone in his candy-colored house, sandwiched between burgeoning construction projects, a relic of a simpler time living amongst the commotion and frenzy of the now.

When Carl is declared a menace to society for bopping a construction worker in the head with his cane, the court orders Carl to sell his house to the black-suited, villain-esque developers and move to a retirement community. But Carl has no intention of breaking his cross-your-heart promise to Elie, the one he made when they were kids, and proceeds to tie 10,000 balloons to his house, lifts off and sets his sails – made out of the living room drapes – for South America. But following your heart is never easy or convenient and this is made perfectly clear when Carl hears an odd knock at his door, despite sailing high in the wild blue yonder through white puffy clouds. The destructor of Carl’s peace is Russell (Jordan Nagai), a Wilderness Explorer looking to earn his “assisting the elderly” merit badge. The duo seems an odd couple, but Russell, like Carl used to be, is full of love and innocence. He’s looking to turn the lights on in people’s eyes. Russell is essentially the epitome of the modern-day kid: wide-eyed, hyperactive, from a fractured home and full of curiosity.

Charles Muntz! This crazy old coot sang "Edelweiss!" WTF!?
Charles Muntz! This crazy old coot sang "Edelweiss!" WTF!?

After surviving a massive thunderstorm, and with the help of Russell’s GPS, the two burgeoning friends find themselves in Venezuela and the hidden, towering waterfall Elie had always dreamed of seeing with her own eyes. Now, the only thing left is to relocate Carl’s house from one end of the jungle to the other. On the way there they meet a giant exotic, female bird, whom Russell names Kevin, and a warm-hearted pooch named Dug (Bob Peterson), whose hi-tech collar allows him to talk. The foursome soon stumbles across more talking dogs and their master, the long lost adventurer Charles F. Muntz. The last act of the film has every element you’d want in a movie – laughs, action and enough warm heartedness that you’ll actually consider not engaging in road rage in the movie theater parking lot, something heretofore unimaginable and unavoidable.

I loved “Up” and I think you will, too. The relationship between Carl and Russell is tender, and despite being animated, their characters are more real and hearty than anything you’ve seen on screen this summer. Visually, the film is a masterpiece, although I am a little disappointed Disney felt the need to offer a 3-D option for “Up.” Of all the films boasting 3-D, this is one that does not need the lame, dated gimmick. Personally, I hope the return of 3-D dies a slow painful death. So, if presented with the option, pass on the glasses. You don’t need them.

As for any objectionable content parents of young children might be worried about, this is truly a movie for all ages and audiences and one that will leave you with a smile for days to come. Bravo once again to Pixar. Everything they touch turns to gold.

6 comments On Up: Pixar’s New Film is Heartfelt Magic (****)

  • I’ll comment in Andy’s review because Dan’s review already has four comments. I just got back from seeing “Up.” (In 3D, by the way, which wasn’t bad but wasn’t spectacular. I’d have preferred not having the hassle of the glasses, but the kids I took liked the gimmick.)

    The movie is fantastic. That’s all there is to say. It’s a great message and left me with tears in my eyes (literally) on at least two occasions.

    I can’t add anything new to Andy or Dan’s review, but do want to throw a shout out to the short before the film, “Partly Cloudy,” that I thought was also very well done and heartwarming.

    Pixar does it right, that’s all there is to say about that.

  • We’re all in agreement then– Pixar has permission to run the world, where we’ll all be joined in a teary-eyed and heartfelt cuddlefest.

    And Amen- Partly Cloudy was great. Another example of how to showing is ven more affecting than simply telling.

  • Partly Cloud WAS fantastic. I can’t believe I failed to mention that.

  • I got hosed out of partly cloudy. What a rip. As for 3D, Andy, it’s the new HD. I, for one, am hankerin’ to see a sporting event in 3D. Word on the street is Pixar is going to 3D from here on out, so I say to you: Suck it, Trebek. That being said, I don’t think the 3D added anything to Up.

  • I refuse to watch anything in 3D since my LOVELY screening of Beowulf with Mr. Morgan himself. I wasn’t very excited about “UP” until listening to the radio show and reading the reviews. Now, I will have to go with the rest of the world and see it for myself. Thanks guys!

  • Nick, Nick, Nick…3D is poop. Maybe in Pixar’s universe it’s gold, but everything I’ve seen so far is crap.

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