A grumpy old coot, a chubby kid and a house hoisted by helium balloons — if you’re thinking that Up sounds like a shortcut to sugar shock, snap out of it. Pandering to ninnies is not on the agenda for this latest landmark in Pixar animation. With Pete Docter and Bob Peterson sharing the directing and writing, Up is a breathtaking ride into the realm of pure imagination. Up shames the pap that now passes for family entertainment (yes, Night at the Museum 2, I’m talking to you).
You can feel balls-out creativity whooshing through every frame. Darkness and its cousin loss also intrude, as they do in Pixar’s best films (The Incredibles, WALL-E, Finding Nemo). Up sees the world as real, full of life and pain. Some theaters are showing Up in 3-D, which dims the color a bit, but the dimensions that count are in the movie’s mind and heart. The opening sequence is touched by genius. A young Depression-era boy named Carl goes to the movies and watches a newsreel about Charles Muntz (a complex portrait in voice by the great Christopher Plummer), an explorer who takes off for South America in a dirigible to track a giant bird at Paradise Falls. Quiet Carl wants to explore as well. He meets an exciting, motor-mouthed girl, Ellie, who shares his feelings. They grow up, marry and grow old without fulfilling their dreams of children or adventure. This near-silent prelude is Pixar perfection. Up achieves literal liftoff when the widowed Carl (eloquently growled by Ed Asner) takes the balloons he used to sell pre-retirement, ties them to his house and takes off for Paradise Falls. He doesn’t know he has a stowaway, eight-year-old Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai). And he doesn’t know the perils of his journey will include Muntz’s pack of attack dogs with electronic collars that enable them to talk.
The movie is wonderfully funny and touching (props to the gawky hero of a bird Russell names Kevin), but what’s really exhilarating are the risks it takes, all set to Michael Giacchino’s ardent, award-caliber score. Up may be the first animated kiddie crowd-pleaser to feature dentures and an hommage to Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, as old man and boy drag a house and the burden of dreams through the jungle. Up works miracles. Just sit back and watch it fly.