It’s pretty much a given that each new Pixar film is going to blow minds away with its rapturous digital artistry, and Up is no exception. With its clever, gorgeously textured evocations of everything from early American newsreels to misty, sub-tropical vistas, Up is every bit as ambitious and amazing as Pixar’s animation milestones as it spins its fable about retired balloon-seller and curmudgeonly widower, Carl Frederickson (voiced with gravelly gusto by Ed Asner), who looks the spitting image of the latter-day Spencer Tracy (think Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner).
The death of his wife, Ellie, has left Carl a sorrowful and bitter septuagenarian, nursing regret that he was never able to make good on Ellie’s dreams about one day going to Paradise Falls, a mysterious, exotic place somewhere in South America. Refusing to give in to real estate developers coveting his home as well as to the retirement-home orderlies who show up to take him away one morning, Carl takes off — literally — with the aid of a gigantic bouquet of candy-colored balloons and jerry-rigged sails, his sights set on Paradise Falls, vowing finally to honor Ellie’s lifelong wish.
No sooner has Carl soared over treetops and cityscapes — another of Pixar’s trademark vibrant montages — that he discovers he’s got a stowaway, the sweet, comically dim Russell (Jordan Nagai), a rotund boy scout who’d shown up on Carl’s doorstep the previous day and never quite gone away. Eager to win his final merit badge — to be earned after he helps out a senior citizen — Russell offers his services to the surly, petulant Carl.
This sets off a consistently engaging adventure yarn as Carl and Russell arrive at Paradise Falls and encounter a dapper, eccentric coot named Charles Muntz (Christopher Plu bmmer), an explorer-adventurer cut somewhere between Erroll Flynn and Howard Hughes. Carl has idolized Muntz since his boyhood. Indeed, in the wonderfully pitch-perfect mock newsreel that opens the film, we’ve learned how Muntz was the discoverer of the legendary Paradise Falls, from where he’d brought home the skeleton of a fabulous bird. When the authenticity of the skeleton was called into question, the zealous and disgraced Muntz embarked for Paradise Falls again, vowing to bring a live specimen. Ever since, Muntz has been on the hunt for the rare bird, using his spectacular Hindenberg-like airship as his base of operations, and a team of dogs as his assistants.
In perhaps the most obvious concession to the kiddie-movie crowd, Muntz’s dogs are all outfitted with collars that vocalize all their thoughts in a variety of cartoonish voices. It’s here that Up threatens to teeter into the pedestrian pandering of lesser studios’ animated fare (i.e. Paramount’s Ice Age franchise or Dreamworks’ Shrek). That the talking dogs are often so endearingly funny, and the jokes cute and clever without ever feeling derivative or infantile is a testament to Pixar’s high standards relative to its industry peers.
Of course, Carl and Russell promptly encounter the very bird — a dopey hybrid of a dodo and an ostrich — that Muntz has been seeking for decades. As reluctant as Carl is to befriend the creature, he resolves to help Russell save the bird once they catch wind of Muntz’s sinister motives towards it. Hence, Up locks itself inevitably into the groove of a by-the-numbers chase-and-rescue picture, embellished — thankfully! — by the vertiginous imagination and clever plotmaking of Pixar’s storytellers.
As entertaining as Up’s second-half is, it’s a far cry from the cinematic and emotional tour de force that opens this film: A lovely and telling montage of Carl and Ellie’s lifelong romance and married life, alternately tragic and joyous. These vignettes richly and efficiently portray lives of dreaming, togetherness, loss, and disappointment that would make cinema forebears like Griffith and Chaplin proud. Indeed, the first 20 minutes of Up rank as the best thing to roll out of the Pixar factory, perhaps ever.
Up deflates a bit of its early potential once it recognizes itself as a mass market film and, hence, falls into the familiar devices of an action-oriented, beat-by-beat plotline to keep the multiplex audience interested. Paradise Falls, for instance, loses the early sense of awe and wonder that cloaked it to become simply a backdrop to the plot-driven antics that power the bulk of the movie. Luckily, when it’s all said and done, Up lingers in the mind with its tale of an old man’s redemption, his honoring of the love of his life, and the rejuvenation of his own spirit, proving that, where it counts, Pixar’s magic still has sparks to spare.
Directed by: Pete Docter, Bob Peterson
Written by: Bob Peterson
Cast: Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, Bob Peterson, Delroy Lindo, Jerome Ranft, John Ratzenberger, David Kaye, Elie Docter, Jeremy Leary