It's gotten to the point now where heaping praise on a Pixar film is borderline needless. At their worst ( Cars) the animation house still produces quality amusement for kids and parents alike, and at their best (more or less everything else they've ever made), they consistently deliver transcendentally brilliant works of animated film that captivate the imagination in ways other studios just can't quite seem to pull off.
Up is by all means top flight Pixar (no pun intended). It takes some off kilter heroes (a cranky old man, an over-enthusiastic young boy, an even more over-enthusiastic talking dog, and a giant South American bird), and builds a story around them that's as sweepingly exhilarating as it is deeply layered and heart-wrenchingly beautiful. I can scarcely remember a movie prior that had me inches from tears ten minutes in, and there again ten minutes from the end, all while totally engaged in the thrilling adventure that took place in between.
The plot is like some bizarre combination of Fitzcarraldo and Grumpy Old Men, with something wholly original mixed in to boot. At the outset we meet Carl, a bespectacled and square-headed young boy. He idolizes an adventurer named Charles Muntz ( Christopher Plummer), whose slogan of “Adventure is out there!” captivates young Carl. His travels around the globe with scads of canine helpers in an elaborately decked out zeppelin have made him a superstar—at least until he's called a fraud after claiming to have discovered a never-before-seen breed of bird in a remote region of South America called Paradise Falls. Muntz departs to prove his detractors wrong, and young Carl is left to imagine his own epic travels. It doesn't take him long to find a would-be traveling companion in Ellie, a young girl who is all freckles and pluck. She heartily shares Carl's desires for adventure, albeit with far more aplomb than the quiet little boy.
In a gorgeous dialogue-free five minute sequence, we get the entirety of their lives together with every key emotional moment played out in carefully constructed rapid-fire. They get married, fix up an old clunker of a house into their dream home, and take jobs at a local zoo, with Ellie teaching about rare birds and Carl manning the balloon stand. Their plans to start a family are shockingly put to rest (in what has to be the most deftly handled scene involving miscarriage in a family film of all time—wait, are there even any others?) and instead, they decide to scrimp and save for their dream trip to a remote waterfall in South America. But over the years life has a way of getting in the way of the best laid plans, and just when it seems they might finally steal away, Ellie is gone, and Carl is left alone, with only the house as a reminder of their life together.
That probably sounds like a colossally depressing intro, but it's not, really. We feel Carl's grief, but the film doesn't linger on it. Just when it seems things are at their worst for Carl—he's about to be carted off to a retirement home and his house is about to be trampled under foot by greedy developers—he uses every last balloon in his stockpile to send his house aloft. He's headed to South America to live the dream he and Ellie never realized, and he's going to get away from the outside world that he's all but rejected—or, at least, he thinks he is. Not long after takeoff, he finds himself encumbered with unwelcome company, a young wilderness explorer (essentially a boy scout) named Russell who has inadvertently stowed away on this fantastic voyage. His brazen enthusiasm for helping the elderly and spherical shape are the perfect antithesis of Carl's square, unenthusiastic demeanor.
Once they reach the falls, they meet up with some hilariously bizarre characters, including an over-sized, neon-tinted female bird with an affinity for chocolate (who Russell names Kevin) and a talking dog named Dug. Yes, a talking dog. Trite and weird as that sounds, the script's reasoning behind the talking dog thing (an electric collar that translates the rather rudimentary treat-and-squirrel-focused canine thought processes into discernible language) is a minor stroke of comedic genius.
I won't spend any more time recapping each individual episode these characters go through. Suffice it to say, adventure is indeed out there, and it's as breathtaking as it is hysterical. Co-directors/writers Pete Docter (Monsters Inc.) and Bob Peterson (also the voice of Dug) change the tone and tenor of the film seemingly at will. Action sequences blend seamlessly into moments of quiet reflection, which then blend right into absurd comedy. Up is all over the place in the best way possible.
Of course the animation is of incredible quality, though the subtlety on display here is what really stands out. The color palette is practically a character in itself. The film is bright, exuberant, beautiful to look at. But the little details, like the carefully constructed layout of Carl and Ellie's home, with all its little trinkets and pictures and keepsakes, and Muntz's unbelievably designed airship, really sell this thing. I saw Up in 3D in theaters, and it was used to solid effect, more so than most animated flicks that try to overwhelm you with their extra dimension. Still, I think the movie looks a great deal better in 2D, as the colors come through as markedly more vibrant.
One thing that I think rarely gets talked about enough is how brilliant the voice casting tends to be in Pixar films. Most studios just try to cobble together as many familiar actors as possible, regardless of their appropriateness for the role. Pixar has flirted with major stars, but oftentimes their best casting decisions come from finding smaller actors that simply embody the role. Whether it's Patton Oswalt in Ratatouille, Craig T. Nelson in The Incredibles, or, now, Ed Asner in Up, these actors are simply pitch perfect for what the character needs to convey. Docter reportedly rejiggered some of the dialogue to fit Asner's snarly inflection, and the result fits like a glove. Newcomer Jordan Nagai does a great job as Russell as well, hitting the right note of youthful befuddlement and unchecked enthusiasm. Co-director Bob Peterson's turn as Dug is tremendously adorable.
Some might be tentative about a child's ability to identify with a septuagenarian as an adventuring hero, but Pixar's experience in making unlikely heroes into heroes of the most iconic category is unrivaled, and Up succeeds not in spite of, but because of its unusual protagonist. Carl Fredrickson deserves to be remembered just as fondly as Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Remmy the Rat, WALL-E, and the host of other classic characters the studio has dreamed up over the years, and though Pixar isn't in the habit of making a lot of sequels, I wouldn't mind one bit seeing what kind of adventures Carl and Russell might get up to next.