Early in Up—the 10th feature from the cinematic-quality machine called Pixar—there is a sequence that distills all of the best that the animation powerhouse brings to filmmaking. After a brief prologue introducing us to a pair of simpatico kids named Carl and Ellie in the 1930s, we watch without a word of dialogue as the childhood friends become sweethearts, then follow them through 50 years of married life. Like the “When She Loved Me” sequence in Toy Story 2, it’s an emotionally wrenching montage; like much of the first half of WALL-E, it’s an example of what pure visual storytelling can deliver. This kind of jaw-dropping, tear-jerking brilliance is what we have come to expect as matter-of-fact, everyday stuff from Pixar. Mere excellence almost feels like a letdown.
As Up moves into its primary storyline, that’s the challenge co-writer/director Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.) faces. In the present day, Carl (Edward Asner) is now a curmudgeonly septuagenarian, living alone in his house while high-rise development goes on around him. Facing the prospect of life in a retirement home, Carl instead sends a massive cascade of balloons through his chimney, launching the house into the air with a plan to head to the remote South American jungle that was a dream adventure destination for Carl and Ellie. There’s also an unexpected hitchhiker: Russell (Jordan Nagai), a young Wilderness Explorer who didn’t take the hint that Carl didn’t want to be helped across the street.
The stage is set for the kind of character arc that, unfortunately, has dragged down any number of sentimental dramas: Ill-tempered adult learns to reconnect with life by having to take care of a child. Docter and his co-director/writer Bob Peterson make efforts to give the familiar premise a twist, refusing to make Russell a wise-beyond-his-years smart-aleck and subtly introducing Russell’s own desire to please his largely absentee father. But the gravel-voiced Asner doesn’t quite find a vocal performance that brings Carl to life. The center of the story, for too long, is a generic Grumpy Old Man, no matter how much he eventually turns into a liver-spotted Indiana Jones.
Instead, the pleasures in Up emerge from the periphery, and there are plenty of them. Once they arrive at their destination, Carl and Russell discover a rare rainbow-hued bird that Russell dubs Kevin, and the animators have great fun with its playful expressiveness. Our heroes also run across the dogs outfitted by long-lost explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) with voice-generating electronic collars, and the gimmick of verbalizing what we imagine is going on in a real canine’s short-attention-span head is used to riotous effect—most notably in the character of the over-eager mutt Dug (voiced by Peterson). Unlike contemporary animated fare that tosses out pop-culture references at regular intervals, Up maintains a Pixar tradition of basing its humor on character—and even when an outside reference does sneak in, like dogs playing poker, it’s understated enough to warrant a big laugh.
There’s no question that Up delivers as entertainment, even when compared to other summer adventures. Docter directs a few tremendously satisfying action sequences, including chase sequences across cliffs and rivers, an airborne dogfight that actually involves dogs, and what may be cinema’s first knock-down drag-out hand-to-hand combat between two characters old enough to qualify for Social Security. It’s energetic in providing material for Pixar’s first 3-D release, and it’s fun.
What it’s not—at least not enough of the time—is truly transporting. That’s a high standard for any film to live up to, and maybe it’s an unfair one. Up certainly shows more storytelling prowess than most of what shows up on your neighborhood theater screen, and it finds another touching moment near its conclusion. But nothing matches the magic of that early sequence, and Carl doesn’t prove to be nearly as interesting or engaging a protagonist once he actually starts talking. Even the visuals, while painterly in the portrayal of the film’s remote tropical location, are satisfying without really offering a wow factor. Docter plays the best material he has at the outset, and as a result he faces the blessing/curse of being part of the Pixar legacy: He crafts an enjoyable, at times lovely piece of family-friendly filmmaking, and it still ends up feeling a bit disappointing.
Edward Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai