Because Pixar is known for so reliably hitting balls out of the park, every time, it’s hard to think of what possible angle to take in a review as its latest slugger, Up, trots merrily around the bases of the multiplex, dances its way toward the hefty box-office returns that await at home plate, and basks in the warm glow of the adoration of millions of fans. For three years now, there have been stories in the financial press alleging that Pixar’s latest is due to underperform because a) nobody wants to see a silent movie about a lonely robot; b) children don’t want to play with plush rats; or c) nobody loves old people and fat kids. That’s one reason why it’s such good sport to watch the movies rake in the dough year after year.
Another reason is simply that the movies are so goddamned enjoyable that they function as a palliative for the weary summer cinemagoer, and as exhibit A in any reasonable person’s argument that, despite outward appearances, expensive Hollywood movies can be both finely made and commercially viable. A movie like Up makes deeply felt, richly imagined, and downright populist storytelling look like the natural order of narrative film. It’s not that this material is especially rarefied — there’s a grumpy old man and an earnest (but awkward) boy scout and a flying house that may as well be lifted directly out of Miyazaki — but rather that the rest of Hollywood seems to be working from the fundamentally flawed premise that the only thing kids want to see on screen are lowest-common-denominator shenanigans involving talking animals, fart jokes, and very broad comedy.
In fact, maybe the problem is that the rest of Hollywood is worrying too damned much about what it thinks kids want to see on screen. Watching a Pixar film, you get the same sense you do when watching prime Looney Tunes – that the writers and director, the layout artists and the voice talent, everyone involved, was working on a movie for themselves rather than something they thought, in all their sober demographic condescension, would be suitable for children. That’s why something like “Duck Amuck,” while hilarious, also works as an introductory text on film theory. And it’s how Up, which is also very funny, can be both a breezy children’s adventure yarn and a serious consideration of love, death, and lives left behind.
That’s the dichotomy exemplified by Up‘s twin leads. Senior citizen Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Edward Asner) is a taciturn fella who, like Clint Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski, watched with dismay over the decades as the world he once knew fell away around him, stranding him in a lonely place. And young Russell (Jordan Nagai) is a tubby boy scout who starts the film with little on his mind behind securing one last merit badge. When old Carl indulges a young man’s escapist fantasies by attaching thousands of balloons to his creaky old house and taking to the skies, a well-meaning Russell ends up coming along for the ride.
One of the more endearing things about Up is the way that director Pete Docter (he previously directed only Monsters Inc., but has story credits on the two Toy Story movies, which are the gold standard of modern cartoons) and screenwriter Bob Peterson (he’s credited as “co-director,” whatever exactly that means, and also contributes the film’s stand-out voice performance) keep reinventing it as they go along, working through different environments, adding characters both comic and nefarious, and figuring out a way to hang a redemptive quest around Carl’s weary, cranky shoulders. Boiled down, it’s apparent that what Carl’s really attempting when he goes aloft in his makeshift airship is to dial in one final destination — he’s resigning himself to his death. Before the film’s over, Carl will become a surrogate dad to the fatherless Russell and the boy scout will become, in a way, Carl’s compass, replacing the wife whom he badly misses.
Proving that such material need be neither stuffy nor laborious, diversions along the way include a posse of talking dogs (riotous), a daffy bird of paradise (adorable), a crazed genius (hsssss!), and a rousing action climax made of pure airborne pandemonium (sweet). Technically, of course, it’s a marvel. If you visit the right theater and pay a few bucks extra, you can see it in 3D, a gimmick that works pretty well this time around, emphasizing the roundness of Carl’s big nose in close-up or amplifying the scope of its skyfaring imagery. (I’m becoming convinced that depth effects are more desirable in films that take place in big open spaces, like exteriors or U2 concerts, rather than those that transpire on confined sets, like Coraline.) Wee children will appreciate it for its kinetic surface pleasures, and adults will be hard-pressed to miss its insistent heartstring-tugging. But at its heart, and in a way that will resonate with youngsters and codgers alike, Up is about finding yourself in other people.