It hardly seems necessary to point out, as I and countless
others have before, Pixar’s well-earned reputation for crafting animated tales
that transcend the supposed limitations of the genre, populating aesthetically
rich universes with characters who often seem more memorably human than those
in live-action fantasies. But it’s still worth noting.
Up carries on that
tradition, and if it fails to
resonate with the same emotional force as last year’s WALL*E, it is just
as ambitious, tracing the life of its resilient hero, Carl Fredricksen, from
childhood well into his senior years. Most of the film finds Carl (voiced by Ed
Asner), still youthfully vigorous as a grumpy old man, determined to honor the
legacy of his late, beloved wife even as urban development threatens to swallow
their cozy home. Yet co-directors Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.) and Bob
Peterson give us his backstory too, in the form of a poignant four-minute
montage that sums up a lifetime of memories.
It’s a brilliant sequence, wordlessly recounting the magical
romance between Carl and Ellie that begins as a chance encounter between two
wannabe adventurers bound by their mutual love of Charles Muntz, a daring
explorer whose feats are chronicled in newsreels. Ellie dreams of building a
home atop the cliffs of Paradise Falls, the South American hideout where Muntz’s
enormous airship is said to be docked. It is a dream ultimately deferred, but
she and Carl find simpler pleasures in each other’s company.
Widowed and alone for the first time in decades, Carl at 78
is not so much helpless as without purpose. That changes when push comes to
shove: Faced with eviction, he straps thousands of helium balloons to his home
and takes flight, bound for Paradise Falls and the fulfillment of a lifelong
There are surprises along the way, the biggest coming in the
form of Russell (Jordan Nagai), a pint-sized stowaway and full-time Boy Scout
bent on getting his merit badge for assisting the elderly. He earns it the hard
way, helping Carl drag his hovering home through the South American jungle in a
fashion that pays subtle tribute to Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. Their
travels are often played for laughs – Carl is rarely wanting for a curmudgeonly
aside – but the dramatic stakes get raised a notch when the odd couple stumbles
onto Muntz’s legendary refuge.
Muntz (Christopher Plummer) is every bit the eccentric one
might expect – he lives in his airship with a small army of dogs whose collars
translate guttural barks into English – and far more ornery. When Carl and
Russell interfere with his pursuit of an exotic bird, Muntz reveals his inner
Kurtz, turning on his guests with deadly resolve.
If Up sounds a shade
darker than previous Pixar
offerings, there’s a reason. Docter and Peterson know better than to pander to
the children in their audience, so it comes as little surprise that they handle
themes like aging and death so matter-of-factly. The world they have
created here is vibrant and exquisitely detailed, a worthy choice for the
studio’s first 3-D adventure, but the movie’s underlying humanity trumps even
its splendid technical achievements.
Does Up belong in the
pantheon alongside Pixar’s
strongest efforts? Not quite. As a feat of the imagination, it is on a par with
the studio’s finest – among them, Toy Story 2, The Incredibles
and my personal favorite, WALL*E – but Up occasionally loses
focus, moving in too many directions at once to concentrate on Carl and Russell’s
It’s a minor complaint, really, but also worth noting. Up
is clever and handsome, but only sporadically as moving as the best of its
cinematic forebears. To be fair, Pixar has set the bar impossibly high. That
they clear it here by a foot and not by a mile doesn’t mean they haven’t
succeeded in serving up extraordinary entertainment.