Such Great Heights
[N.B.: I screened the film in 2-D, though it's also being presented in digital 3-D in certain theaters.]
Up is the 10th feature from Pixar Animation Studios, and it so skillfully and wonderfully extends the company's filmmaking record that it would be easy to dismiss the movie as nothing more than their latest assembly-line perfection. The film is as gorgeously rendered as viewers have come to expect a Pixar film to be, packed with colors and styles that mesh to create a unique universe that's still recognizable as Pixar's, and the story and characters are as genuine and joyful as ever. But the film's real strength is in the way it conveys emotional nuance with nothing more than the right image, and how it turns what at times is a slightly "cartoonish" script into something resonant and heartbreaking.
Directed by Pete Docter with co-direction from Bob Peterson, Up is the most storybook tale to come from Pixar's stable in a while, which makes sense: Docter's previous turn at the helm of a Pixar vehicle was 2001's Monsters, Inc., which explored the flipside of the mythos of children's stories. His new film calls back to that in everything from structure to character design, most notably in the form of Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner), an elderly retiree who is three heads high, meaning his body from the neck down is exactly twice as tall as his head. The world of Up is stretched and squished just enough to give it personality but not so much that the characters cease being people. The film opens with a gut-wrenching prologue of Carl's life from youth to the present, and it's a powerful sequence that covers the span of decades with nothing more than carefully selected images, scenes, and music. Docter brings a purity of intent that's inherent in Pixar films as Carl grows up, gets married, and eventually turns to a life of widowed solitude. It's a heartbreaking set-up that makes Carl into a solid character in minutes, and the movie becomes his story.
Carl's house, once in a quiet suburban neighborhood, is now the last holdout against encroaching development, and he refuses to leave. He even goes so far as to strike a construction worker with his cane, and though the scuffle is an accident, he draws blood. It's a shockingly real moment for an animated film, especially one that will see dogs pilot biplanes before the end credits roll (I am not making this up), and it underscores the inherent darkness in the narrative. It's no surprise that the script from Peterson and Ronnie del Carmen also has a story credit to Tom McCarthy, who wrote and directed The Station Agent and The Vistor, a fantastic pair of films about a man slowly learning to reconnect with the world around him. Carl is a lonely, bitter man who misses his wife. There's nothing hilarious about that, and Docter doesn't begin to make the man a punch line.
For his fight, Carl is sentenced to be shuttled off to a retirement home, but instead he makes a grand escape, fastening a legion of helium-filled balloons to his house via the fireplace and lifting off into the sky. It's a beautifully animated moment, with sunlight shining through the balloons and sending colored shadows across the city. Carl sets his sights on South America, specifically a place called Paradise Falls, where he and his wife dreamed of living but were never able to visit. But he soon hits a snag: a young boy named Russell (Jordan Nagai), a scout with the Wilderness Explorers who was rebuffed in his earlier attempts to help Carl, accidentally stowed away on the porch and is along for the ride. Carl begrudgingly takes the boy on as a travel partner, but softens over time.
The bulk of the film follows Carl and Russell's trip to South America and their travels once they arrive, towing the house, which has begun to lose balloons, across the mountains to reach Carl's promised land. Docter introduces a token villain, the crazed former explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), whom Carl had admired as a boy, but Muntz's attempts to interfere with Carl's journey and abduct an exotic bird adopted by Russell start to feel rote after a while. It's not that he's a flimsy villain: If anything, he's creepier and colder than any Pixar bad guy since Sid, the boy in Toy Story who got his rocks off by melting and exploding his action figures. Muntz travels with a pack of attack dogs that have been outfitted with collars allowing them to talk, and he's definitely psychotic. But Muntz's real purpose is to allow Carl to see what he might become if he continues to remain emotionally isolated from the world. It's a smart move that really helps the story hit home. Russell is obviously going to be the driving force that pulls Carl pack into the world, giving him someone to care about, but it's the darkness in Muntz that catalyzes Carl's steady change from withdrawn hermit to functioning member of humanity.
As usual, the voice actors are splendidly cast. Asner, who turns 80 this fall, is perfectly suited for Carl, able to convey the gruffness he's built up over the years as well as the glee he begins to feel later in the film. Plummer is similarly strong, but Nagai, in his first film, steals as many scenes as possible with an unstoppable childish joy. The skillful work from what's basically a three-person cast illustrates how committed Pixar's creative team remains to the ideals of storytelling and their desire to place a premium on fidelity of character. Docter's film is as far as can be from the movies coming out of DreamWorks Animation, the only other game in town for computer-animated films. The script is funny but never jokey, relevant but never dated. The characters and dialogue reach for and achieve the timelessness typical of Pixar films, and the moments that play broader or act as nods to the adults in the audience are never showy and always completely in line with the story. It's a testament to Pixar's focus on quality that even after it was acquired by Disney, becoming a part of the animation giant instead of just partnering with them for distribution, its films were still known as Pixar films. The name has become a brand that stands for legitimate excellence in animated filmmaking, and Up is the latest example. It's emotional, moving, thrilling, and uplifting. Coming from Docter and the rest of the Pixar team, it couldn't have been anything else.