(No longer in theaters)
Action/Adventure, Animation, Comedy
Walt Disney Pictures
May 29, 2009
Pixar’s Up is a small charmer with the studio’s patented brand of cunning: Shock us with an inconsolable woe (predator eats fish’s wife and kids; a trash-heap Earth is depopulated save for a robot whose idea of culture is Hello, Dolly!); then gradually introduce sentiment, riotous chases, and a rousing cliff-hanger. Works for me! If we forgive the more conventional second half of Wall-E (and not everyone does), it’s because we’re grateful; we’re unaccustomed to such devastation in mainstream animation. We’re certainly devastated by the overture to Up, which centers on a loving couple unable to conceive or to live out the spirit of adventure that brought them together as bright-eyed children—then closes with aging and terminal illness. The elderly widower protagonist, Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner), assaults a contractor and elicits actual blood—blood in a cartoon!—and is sentenced to sell his beloved house and finish his days in a retirement facility. When he rips said house from its moorings with the aid of an immense, tutti-frutti bouquet of helium balloons and hightails it for a South American waterfall—the dream destination of his wife—our sad hearts surge.
Directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson are savvy tricksters. The first half of Up is all demented free association, with a dream logic both baffling and hilarious. The second half is outlandish but formulaic: Jules Verne melodrama with a Captain Nemo–like obsessive (Christopher Plummer at his most plangently sinister), plus talking dogs, plus a needy, fatherless adolescent. In search of a merit badge for assisting the elderly, Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai), a roly-poly Asian-American wilderness explorer, gets caught on the porch when the house lifts off, then irritates the old man with his chatter. We know that Fredricksen will become a surrogate dad, but Asner has perfected this growly persona: He will turn out to have a tender heart, but it will never be on his sleeve.
The look of Up is a world away from Pixar’s usual CGI intricacies—simple in a way that only artists with a genius for complexity can achieve. The characters are like wittier Cabbage Patch dolls. Has there ever been a human hero as off-putting yet accessible as Fredricksen, with his big square head and big square glasses and big round nose? The geometry is so basic, the impact so startling. Russell, his tiny eyes nestled in a blob of a face, must be the least immediately lovable of animated tykes. But he won me over. As in other Pixar films, the relative immobility of the features dries out the sentimentality and draws us in. The movement from inexpressiveness to vulnerability is inexorable.
By all means, see Up
in its 3-D incarnation: The cliff drops are vertiginous, and the scores
of balloons—bunched into the shape of one giant balloon—are as
pluckable as grapes. The dogfight with canine pilots would have brought
a salute from the late Charles M. Schulz. A mammoth, multicolored bird
with an uncanny resemblance to the monster of the fifties sci-fi
picture The Giant Claw sticks its beak into people’s faces and emits a flabbergasting croak: You can almost feel the air.
Complaints? Once Fredricksen’s wife, Ellie, passes away, there are no women characters—but Pixar has always been a boys’ universe. (More’s the pity: Girls like toys, too, and Coraline demonstrated the fertility of female escape fantasies.) Otherwise, the movie is practically a metaphor for Pixar’s storytelling: down, down, down; up, up, Up.