Admit it, you’re just like me — you really had no idea what Disney Pixar’s latest animated adventure, Up was about. For me, all I knew was it had a grumpy old man, a fat kid, a talking dog and a colorful bird in it. Oh yeah, how could I forget, there was also a house, a house that was being whisked about the sky by a million balloons. How all these pieces were supposed connect to form a cohesive story was going to take a lot of effort to pull off.
Yet ain’t it something — they pulled it off. Incredibly well too, I might add. And yep, I’m stunned about it; I certainly thought Up was going to be the Pixar clunker we’ve all been awaiting for some time. Instead, this film may be their strongest showing yet.
Continuing through the door that WALL-E ripped open, Up too, tells a powerful tale without wasting words or packing the 96 minute running time with unneeded filler material.
It gets going with an unexpectedly moving and heartfelt montage laying out the younger years of Carl Fredericksen (voiced by Edward Asner). He meets Ellie, a girl who shares his passion to become a great explorer like the famed Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer). They marry and build a fulfilling life together. She dies without them ever visiting their dream location, Paradise Falls or having children. Full of loneliness and sorrow, and backed into a corner, Carl gives the proverbial finger to the fast moving society building up around him by, quite literally, taking his house up and away. To Paradise Falls, South America he goes, as a final tribute to the woman he loved so much.
The ensuing adventure itself isn’t one to write home to mommy about — at its base it is simply a flighty fight for a colorful dodo-like bird between Charles Muntz with his army of talking dogs and Carl Fredericksen aided by a Junior Wilderness Explorer named Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai). It’s fun to watch due in part to its child-infused absurdity (dogs flying planes?) but mostly because it is fantastically modeled and rendered, and because the slow transformation of Mr. Fredericksen from old codger to an old man with a new lease on life is handled better than most live-acted dramas.
The animation is, as expected, a no-brainer; Pixar has pushed the limits of computer generated realism for years. Up doesn’t noticeably break any new ground (of course I didn’t see the 3D version of the film, so I may very well be wrong here) but it doesn’t lose any either. I’ll just say the landscapes and vistas are beautifully put together. What I found particularly engrossing, which leads to my transformative point, was the small details in Fredericksen’s face and the way he carried himself. In the beginning he was forlorn and lost, and by the end he’s engaged and reinvigorated — with so much of the story being told without ever needing a word spoken. Pete Docter, the man ultimately responsible for this project, had really seen to it that Carl could give the best silent film actors a run for their money for best conveying of a story via expressions only. Ben Affleck, take notes.
Oh yeah, the music score by Michael Giacchino is damn good too. So good in fact, I wouldn’t doubt it gets an award or two.
With Up, Pixar is clearly showing how far they’ve matured. It’s not just about the cutesy characters anymore (although they’re thrown in for good measure), it’s more about the substance of the story and the manner in which it is told. The bar has been raised, DreamWorks Animation — and this is one tough act to follow.