With every new movie Pixar re-establishes itself as the most creatively reliable studio in the business. And every year some critics beat the drum that THIS is the movie that will break free from the animation ghetto and earn a Best Picture Oscar nomination. If anyone out there would like to tell me how The Reader could be a superior film to WALL-E, by all means enlighten me. Pixar has been producing engrossing and complex entertainment, not merely cute cartoons. But if WALL-E failed to score a nomination in a so-so film year, then I doubt that Pixar’s latest, Up, will fly into the winner’s circle.
Carl Frederickson (voiced by Edward Asner) is a cantankerous 78-year-old man who wants nothing more in life than to be left alone. He lives in a house he built with his late wife, Ellie. They met when they were kids and bonded over a shared love of thrill-seeking adventure, like their hero, explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). Ellie’s dream is to eventually travel to Paradise Falls in South America, but she never lives to see it. Carl is about to be thrown into a retirement center and have his home demolished, so the geezer hatches an escape plan. The former balloon salesman attaches thousands of balloons to his house and floats away headed for Paradise Falls. Carl is ready to enjoy the quiet when he gets a knock at his front door. He has a stowaway. Russell (Jordan Nagai) is an overweight eight-year-old determined to get his last Wilderness Scout badge, which involves helping the elderly. Together, they journey through the jungles of Venezuela and find remarkable discoveries and constant danger, including the presence of a sinister and still very-much-alive Charles Muntz.
Up is the colorful tale of a dreamer who longs for escape, and you feel the same rush of excitement to be unbound and take off. Naturally, there will be bonding between the grouchy old man and the earnest kid. Up really becomes an altogether different movie once it lands in Venezuela. It transforms into an unconventional adventure story replete with talking dogs and giant birds. I loved the Dug character and was bemused at hearing the scattered thought patterns of man’s best friend (“I have just met you and I love you”). The side characters somewhat steal the show and, at the same time, feel overextended. With that said, I’ll probably end up buying my wife a talking stuffed Dug. The last act soars with about 20 minutes of thoughtful, exciting, well-constructed action weighted by an emotional connection to character. At the same time, Up tackles some major issues and does so without getting mired in sappy sentimentality. Carl is dealing with loss and has hardened against a world he feels indifferent to. Up almost had me in tears within the first 10 minutes during its elegant wordless montage charting the courtship and marital life of Carl and Ellie. It’s a fabulous moment and greatly economical, packing an emotional punch unequaled by the rest of the film.
The visual storytelling is still top of the line entertainment. The animation is superb as usual. The flying house is an explosion of colors and instantly brought a smile to my face. Carl’s character design looks like he was a Lego character that was brought to life. He’s all square and boxy whereas Russell is round to the point of being an Easter egg with legs (is Russell Asian-American or biracial, or is it just a character design that I’m reading too much into?). The South American jungles are lush and filled with inventive creatures. I saw the movie in a conventional theater but the option is out there to catch the movie in Disney 3-D, but I don’t think it will add much to the whole experience.
The central image is lovely and instantly iconic: the house floating through the clouds thanks to thousands of colorful balloons. It’s a beautiful image and a perfect metaphor for the memory of Carl’s deceased wife. They built that house together and lived a full life inside, he refers to the house as “Ellie,” and at one point Carl even ties the floating house to his back, tethering her memory to Earth while simultaneously carrying his grief with him at every step. The idea of a flying house tickles the imagination and yet never once demands more critical examination. We accept that Carl has rigged the house to take flight and never once stop and question the extreme engineering improbabilities. The flying house is just the mode of transportation for the characters to complete their story, but it is not the whole story. Think of it as a more comfortable mode of family flying than a queen-sized mattress that included Angela Lansbury (1971’s curious Nazi-fighting family flick, Bedknobs and Broomsticks). The rest of the movie never quite matches the directness and depth of that visual metaphor.
Up ducks out on making its tale more of a feeling, living movie, something more than striking visuals and some fun set pieces and odd characters with a dash of sentiment. Up establishes its strange story elements but then doesn’t plausibly make much more out of them. The story becomes a somewhat constricted rescue caper to return a Mama bird to her babies and keep her out of the hands of a Bad Man. Charles Muntz is a fairly weak villain. I’ve also got a burning question: if Carl is 78 years old, how old exactly is his childhood hero, Muntz? It’s a bit simplistic and that’s fine, and it’s still an enjoyable conclusion, but the movie doesn’t ascend from the sum of its parts like the finest works of Pixar, like WALL-E and The Incredibles. This one’s just missing some of that Pixar magic. Yeah, there’s the overall arc of Carl overcoming the loss of his wife and softening his hard exterior, but tell me what exactly else happens that matters? The kid makes a friend? It’s about human connection but how exactly is that best served by giant birds and talking dogs flying biplanes? Up also isn’t as visually arresting or creative as previous Pixar flicks, aside from that floating house. As far as Pixar films go, this is about square down the middle (between Monster’s Inc. and Finding Nemo, better than Cars and A Bug’s Life). But even that statement is prefaced by the fact that Pixar’s output is generally head and shoulders above every other studio in technical precision, creative ingenuity, and emotional heft.
Up takes some fancy flights of imagination and has plenty of humor and charm to make it a family-friendly winner. I have some reservations with the movie and its plot, but there’s no question that Pixar knows how to construct a movie that manages to appeal to everyone, even if it involves cranky old men as unlikely action heroes. I feel like perhaps Up is suffering because it has the rotten luck of following the release of WALL-E, a timeless masterpiece that I have since watched probably over 30 times. Up is a warm-hearted and engaging film even if it never reaches the creative and emotional heights of other Pixar masterworks. Still, a “pretty good” Pixar movie has a legitimate shot at being the best movie I see this summer.
Nate’s Grade: B+