Perhaps this is an obvious question, but how is it that Pixar — no matter how high the expectations for their movies may be — almost always manages to trump those expectations? Sure, a DreamWorks or Blue Sky may come along with a Kung Fu Panda or Ice Age here or there and surprise everyone with success, but for Pixar, the only surprise is how their films work even better than you might have hoped they would.
And such is the case with their latest, Up, which opens this weekend in both standard and digital 3-D forms. We’d all heard good things about this one for some time now, and as it turns out, we heard right.>
Director Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.) and writer-co-director Bob Peterson (co-writer on Finding Nemo) have further charted the course that the company set out on back in 1995 with Toy Story, mixing family entertainment with emotionally-dense storytelling that consistently one-ups, if you will, most of the live-action films Hollywood has been churning out for years now.
As with last year’s WALL.E, Up begins in a less conventional manner than one might expect from a mainstream animated film. WALL.E had its famous wordless first act, and now this picture features a similarly effective — and quite affecting — sequence early on depicting the lifelong relationship between lead characters Carl and Ellie as they meet, fall in love, marry, and eventually grow old together until one of them dies. Subtly, of course, so as to not freak out the kiddies in attendance.
The one who doesn’t die is Carl, voiced by Ed Asner. Having lost his bubbly Mary Tyler Moore, the pushing-80 Carl has nothing left in life to keep his spirits up, as they say. And yet while this geriatric animated character has taken an emotional licking, he keeps on ticking, working through his daily routine of getting out of bed, cleaning the house, dressing, and heading out to… sit on the porch, talking to his dear departed Ellie, who in his mind has come to be represented by the home the pair shared all those years.
But when a big-city real-estate developer manages to get Carl evicted from his house and sent to an old-age home, our elderly hero takes action. Former balloon salesman that he is, Carl turns the house into a flying contraption, lifted into the air by hundreds and hundreds of inflatables which enable the old man to float above his problems, if only for the moment. The initial shots of Carl’s flight are breathtaking and beautifully rendered as the character charts a course with his house-balloon for South America, site of his and Ellie’s childhood dreams of adventure.
Speaking of which, Carl soon finds that he’s got a stowaway onboard, a neighborhood kid named Russell (Jordan Nagai) who is all go-go-go, but who we slowly piece together is facing abandonment issues of his own. The not-quite-curmudgeonly (but not-quite-nice either) Carl has to take the boy under his grey wing once they arrive in South America, where the adventure the old guy had dreamed of his whole life immediately takes to interfering with his day-to-day. These exploits include encountering a pack of talking dogs (not talking in the traditional cartoon sense, but talking via electronic thingamabobs strapped to their collars), adopting a rare species of bird, and stumbling upon a Lindbergh-esque childhood hero of his who is amazingly still alive and looks a heckuva lot like Kirk Douglas (but is voiced by Christopher Plummer).
If the Plummer character winds up being perhaps a bit too commonplace by animated-film standards in his intentions and deeds, those dogs more than make up for it — especially the canine that “adopts” Carl, a mutt named Dug (voiced by co-director Peterson, who apparently did his canine research for the role). The lovable Dug instantly enters the canon of iconic Pixar characters, barking out lines like, “My name is Dug. I have just met you, and I love you,” and, “My master made me this collar. He is a good and smart master and he made me this collar so that I may speak. Squirrel!”
The design of these events is stunning throughout, with the climactic action scenes onboard the ersatz Douglas’ dirigible at least matched by the less flashy down-to-Earth shots of Carl dragging his slowly deflating house-balloon through the jungle. Oh-so-slightly deflated as well is one’s enthusiasm for the material late in the film, which becomes slightly more generic good-guy-vs.-bad-guy stuff when compared to the inspired opening sequences of the movie. And yet, in the end Up turns out to not be an action movie or a comedy or a kid’s film, or even necessarily a mere animated movie, but rather a beyond-the-grave love story between Carl and his lost bride. And if a tear or two is shed in the audience due to this heartfelt plotline, well, at least you’ll have your 3-D glasses to hide behind.