Consistently, time and time again, they release a new animated classic after another one. Pixar really does make movies that will stand the test of time. Up is no exception. From director Pete Doctor (Monsters Inc.), this wonderful movie tells the story of Carl Frederickson (voiced by Ed Asner), a grouchy old man who has just lost the love of his life. Alone and on the verge of losing his house, he decides to achieve the couple’s lifelong dream of travelling to a mysterious and beautiful area in South America. By tying a thousand balloons to the roof his house and sailing away. However, he inadvertently carries with him a stowaway in the form of seven year old wilderness explorer Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai). What follows is your usual adventure film as our two protagonists form a wonderful father-son bond that is actually quite touching.
What’s amazing about this film, and what has been amazing about the recent output from the studio, is to see how far the studio has stretched and really come into its own as an animation studio as opposed to just making another kid’s movie. What I mean to say is, there seems to be a clearly formed line between the kind of movies they made before Cars, and the ones that they have made since.
This isn’t something I noticed until watching Up. The story and the basic concept for their movies have so far progressed past the point that most CG animated movies seem to go. There are more complexities even in the simple log line of the film. That’s not to say that their previous movies were without their narrative complexities. Far from it. They’ve always been skilled at creating a rich depth of character, stories, and themes that resonate deeply with audiences. But it’s no longer about delving into the secret fictional world of an everyday subject. It’s no longer about the secret world of toys, bugs, monsters, fish, superheroes, or cars, giving life to seemingly everyday fantasies of children. After Cars, arguably their weakest effort, there seemed to be a concentrated effort to go beyond this basic concept that they had started out with. Starting with Ratatouille about a rat making French cuisine to the inspired Wall-E about a robot in a dystopic future wasteland and now, Up about a man with a floating house.
As opposed to coming at it the way most other studios seem to go at their kid’s movies, Pixar has built these three recent movies from the character up. Of course, from the start, they’ve always been about building amazing characters but the difference now is that the concept comes out of the characters as with any other good movie made for adults as opposed to having a concept such as “what if toys could talk?” and populating characters within that.
Which brings us to why Up works so well. It’s just an amazing character story, starting with the curmudgeonly Carl Frederickson and where they take the character from beginning to end. They actually start out showing him as a child with big dreams of exploration and meeting Ellie, his future wife. In a short, effective, dialogue-free sequence, the movie shows these two characters’ lives together and how they shaped each other and kept with each other and how those dreams of exploring the big, open world constantly got pushed further and further back until it was too late. An incredibly emotional sequence, they effectively invest the audience in these two characters and we share in Carl’s pain when he loses this person that meant so much to him. What’s amazing here is how they never shy away from the pain and anguish of these people’s lives, such as the fact that they were never able to have children of their own, and really gives some depth into how these are real people living real lives. It’s a stunning achievement and it’s that amazing ease of characterization that carries on through the rest of the film from the loneliness of losing the one person you shared your life with to the special bond that is formed between Carl and Russell. The filmmakers never play their cards too out in the open such as with the Russell character whose abandonment issues with his own father is alluded to every now and then but it never overcomes the rest of the movies. It’s introduced and given just enough to show why these two characters inevitably need each other.
That’s not to say this is just an entirely mopey sob-fest either. From great emotional lows, they go to great highs as our characters travel to the hidden jungles of South America where they run into Carl’s old childhood hero Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer) who is after an elusive, rare bird that Russell affectionately names Kevin. And of course, the man doesn’t seem to be all there and attempts to kill the two and capture the bird and rip it away from his family, and it’s up to our two heroes to stop him. And along the way they befriend a talking dog named Doug (voiced by Bob Peterson, giving a great comedic vocal performance), who is absolutely great along with the other talking dogs that surround the Muntz character (one of whom seems to be voiced by Delroy Lindo).
The impressive character work, the large heart that is central throughout the film, and the wonderful humor that is sustained throughout, the film makes a great perfect balancing act of remaining entertaining, fun, and never letting go of its central principles at heart. This is what seperates Pixar from the pack. Character humor as opposed to characters cracking jokes and pulling you out of the reality of the movie. There is a natural comedic rhythm to the movie that really works and a great emotional core to the movie that never grates or overwhelms the rest of the movie.
As with all things Pixar, its characters first and they hit that goal out of the park. And it’s consistently great all the way through from the emotional first introduction to our characters to the lifting of the house (an amazing sequence in itself) and the ensuing adventures in the South American jungle. There’s more to this movie than most other live action movies and it retains its sense of fun and adventure throughout.
Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the animated short attached to the movie, Partly Cloudy. Pixar has come up with another wonderfully creative little story that shows where storks get the babies that they eventually deliver. More effortless humor and heart, this was probably my least favorite of the shorts that are usually attached to their movies. While good, the whole thing felt a bit overly cutesy and as it was over, I wasn’t bowled over like I was previously with the short Presto that was attached to Wall-e. All I could muster was just a, “well that was cute.” And it was. But not much more to say about it than that.