Published May 29, 2009The tenth feature film from Pixar, the world's greatest animation studio, continues the script that has dominated the film world since its Toy Story debut: innovative visual tech employed in character-driven storytelling makes for boffo box office. And while the protagonists of some recent films - the rat chef, the silent robot and now the old man and the Wilderness Explorer kid - have seemed risky on the surface, Pixar has emerged as the most traditional studio around, telling age-old stories in fresh, exciting ways.
Up is the studio's serial-inspired action adventure story. Carl Fredrickson (Ed Asner) dreamed, from childhood, of seeking adventure in Paradise Falls, with his wife Ellie. As told in the most romantic five minutes in recent film history, they had a great life together but never quite made that big trip. Now alone and surrounded by the encroachment of urban life, he uproots his house under the power of 10,000 helium balloons and sails off to South America, along with young stowaway Russell (newcomer Jordan Nagai).
When they land (largely without incident) in South America, the film takes a turn for the adventurous: they meet a rare bird (which they name Kevin), as well as a pack of speech-enabled dogs who do the bidding of Carl's still-living boyhood hero Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). Muntz is hunting Kevin, and Carl and Russell conspire to foil Muntz's plans and protect the bird. For all his grumpiness about it, Carl gets the adventure he always dreamed about while innocent Russell gets real life Wilderness Explorer experience. (The oddity of Russell, who's maybe eight years old, disappearing from his parents/caregivers for weeks goes largely unmentioned.)
Astute critics have been quick to point out that the image of Carl dragging his balloon-floated house across the South American landscape recalls Werner Herzog's epic Fitzcarraldo. For my money, the whiz-bang inventiveness of the whole film (including the dog collars that translate the canines' thoughts into words) maintains the feel of old school film flights of fancy like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Having mastered every element of realism in Ratatouille, Up is delightfully over-the-top: Carl is squat and lantern-headed, that Muntz is even still living, much less with a huge pack of talking dogs as his minions, strains credulity, and there are plenty of wacky indulgences in the name of physics-defying fun.
And fun this is. Pixar has long followed the axiom that for every laugh there should be a tear, and Up is certainly one of its most heartfelt films in some ways. But once the old man and the kid get deep into their jungle adventure what's truly real or not couldn't be less relevant. It's a balloon ride adventure the likes of which hasn't been seen in about half a century.
Final note: the traditional "short" that opens all Pixar films this time is Partly Cloudy, an oddly traditional-seeming story about storks who deliver young to parents around the world. The babies are created by the clouds, which form mist into shapes and then "zap" them to life.
It's beautifully made and amusing but I couldn't help but wonder how many stork conversations will be taking place in minivans the world over after taking the kids to the movies? (Pixar/Disney)