Well, Pixar, you've done it again. Every year (well, almost every year) the folks at Pixar make an extraordinary film, a movie so smart and sweet and entertaining and challenging that it puts other so-called "family entertainment" to shame. But they don't just make great kid's movies--they make great movies, period. Ratatouille was in my top 10 for 2007; Wall-E was my favorite film of 2008. And I haven't yet seen a better film this year than Up.
Ed Asner, in a perfect marriage of voice actor and role that rivals Peter O'Toole's turn in Ratatouille, stars as Carl Frederickson, a widower who is watching high-rises and chain restaurants encroach on the charming home he shared with his late wife, Ellie. When it looks as though he's run out of options, he attaches thousands of balloons to the house and lifts it right off the ground, planning to fulfill he and Ellie's lifelong dream to live at Paradise Falls in South America. As children, they bonded over their dreams of becoming adventurers, like their hero Charles Muntz (well-voiced by Christopher Plummer); he sees it as the chance to finally have the adventure they always put off.
He picks up a stowaway along the way--Russell (voice of Jordan Nagai), a "wilderness explorer" (why doesn't the Boy Scouts just let people use the name of the organization in movies, instead of this steady stream of obvious substitutions?) trying to earn a merit badge for assisting the elderly. There's also a talking dog named Dug, and the marvelous scene where the house takes flight, and a photographic motif that may mark the first time an animated film has paid homage to Herzog's Fitzcarraldo. But the ads have taken (admirably) great pains to keep the story turns a secret, so I'll leave the plot there and discuss some of the wonderful specifics.
To begin with, it's funny. There are sequences here with the mechanical inventiveness of a Buster Keaton comedy, not to mention an abundance of laugh lines (Carl lets Russell tag along, but with the understanding that there is to be "no rapping or flash dancing") with nary a cutesy pop-culture reference in sight. And the business with the talking dogs is brilliant; without giving too much away, I'll say that the way that they say the things that we're sure dogs think is sheer perfection (and comedy gold).
And of course--and we must not start taking this for granted in Pixar's work--the look of the film is breathtaking. The vivid candy colors of that beautiful mound of balloons are a knockout, and the character design is remarkable (particularly for Carl, who is literally square-jawed). The detail work is impeccable as well--look for the slots and tabs on the "cone of shame" that Dug the dog is made to wear. And there are compositions here that are amazing for any film, animated or live-action; witness the astonishing shot in which Carl and the house are seen in silhouette, against a red sunrise... it's like something out of a John Ford picture.
And I can't think of a live-action film that has done the kind of brilliantly efficient storytelling found in the film's opening sequences. The character of Muntz is set-up with the best Movietone news parody since Citizen Kane, and the childhood meeting of Carl and Ellie is charm personified. But the episode that follows--a montage of their entire life together, seen briefly, all in images, and without a word of dialogue--has an elegance and grace seldom seen in film; it's one of the most beautiful sequences I've seen in any picture in recent memory, and I can't recall ever being so moved by a film so early in its running time.
But that's what Pixar does; they get away with narrative craftsmanship and thematic maturity that most "grown-up" movies can barely conceive of. At one point, late in the film, I reflected on how I was watching a story about how a little boy (and another old man) has somehow made an old man into a boy again, and what a remarkable accomplishment that kind of character-driven storytelling is. Don't get me wrong, Up is a good time--its natural progression to a good old-fashioned adventure picture is beautifully executed--but its quiet moments are the ones that will stay with me. What a charming, lovely, wonderful movie.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.