Director: Pete Doctor
Notable Cast: Ed Asner (voice), Christopher Plummer (voice), Jordan Nagai (Voice), Bob Peterson (voice), Delroy Lindo (voice), John Ratzenberger (voice)
Pixar has reached the point of brand-name recognition. It may not be like Kleenex or Band-Aid, where you use these brand names to identify tissue or adhesive strips, but the studio’s name is like an adjective used to describe an animated movie. A Pixar animated movie is synonymous with quality, and it has more weight than something produced by DreamWorks or Fox. Not too many studios, if any, have such distinction. This is also the only studio that each year makes you want to revise the order of your favorite Pixar films. And since Up is Pixar’s tenth film, you can now generate a top ten list.
Up arrives less than a year after WALL-E, which was widely considered Pixar’s riskiest film, and one that would test the audience’s patience, playing like an homage to Charlie Chaplin. While that film may have thought outside the box – at least for the first act – Up is a more traditional feature that borrows from past successes. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Looking closely, you’ll notice similarities in many of Pixar’s library.
More is accomplished in the first ten minutes than most two-hour features. The bittersweet prologue introduces us to Carl Frederickson (voiced by Ed Asner). We see him first as a stalwart young’un. He wants to be an explorer, and idolizes the exploits of adventurer Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer). Through a montage of scenes we see him kindle a relationship with a young lass named Ellie, who is an explorer seeker as well; they later wed and she becomes a homebody while he tends to his business of selling balloons, much to the delight of kids. Carl and Ellie live a pleasant life, if an unfulfilled one. The matter of infertility is subtly expressed. Together they had planned to take a trip to South America one day and visit Paradise Falls, even had a piggybank stash to collect loose change. But they grow old and she dies before they have a chance to go exploring.
This brings to mind the early moments from Finding Nemo – who can forget what happened to Nemo’s mom? But this is far more heartbreaking. (Translation: grab some extra napkins with your popcorn.) The downer doesn’t last long as we are introduced to a wilderness explorer named Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai). Carl, now a widow on the wrong side of seventy, finds himself at a crossroads. His house is a prime piece of real estate that will inevitably become part of the small-chain shops that have sprung up around it. So Carl decides to set his house afloat with the help of a rainbow array of balloons and go on the adventure that he and Ellie always wanted to take. Only he didn’t count on Russell being a stowaway.
Russell is a persistent if not an absolute nuisance to Carl. You can feel the lines in Carl’s forehead as they start to furrow. The day before the takeoff, Russell knocked on Carl’s door asking if he needed any assistance. It seems helping him would help him earn his Elderly Assistant badge, the only badge he lacks on his Wilderness Explorer sash. Thousands of feet in the air Carl would like nothing better than to return him to solid earth. But the two wind up in South America after surviving a wicked lightning storm. How the house retained a majority of balloons to stay afloat, well it must be movie magic.
It’s not the only magic on display as Pixar raises the bar on a visual scale. With a reported $175 million budget, the animation is head and shoulders above the competition. Eight-year-old Jordan is built like a roly-poly, which is a PC way of saying he has a bit of a glandular problem. Carl’s look, inspired by classic thespian Spencer Tracy, has the stature of a flat-topped broiler oven and the crotchety demeanor of Lou Grant (Ed Asner’s character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show). And I can’t leave out the wonderful array of colors. There are so many that it makes Crayola envious.
But more than the arresting colors and mesmerizing sights it’s the story that sets Pixar apart from other animated fare. The studio has that Midas Touch of crafting a picture that provides equal enjoyment for both kids and adults. The introduction of Dug the talking dog proves this much. So while on the surface it may not look like much of a picture – honestly, an old man and his flying house? – the storytelling is par excellence. This is due in large part to Pete Doctor, who previously directed Monster’s Inc., a movie whose childhood whimsy reminded us of the monsters we thought lived in the closet and under the bed. With Up he gives us moments of tragedy with sidesplitting humor. Carl and Russell may have seventy years between them, but this pairing has all the makings of a great buddy comedy or a road picture (or in this case a “hot air balloon house” picture).
And while I’m still debating Up‘s placement in my Pixar Top Ten List, there’s no discounting it as one of the best pictures of the year. Great characters and voice acting, another winning score by Michael Giacchino (Star Trek, Ratatouille), incredible visuals and a story that just builds and builds to an awesome climax, yeah Pixar is flying high once again.
FINAL RATING (ON A SCALE OF 1-5 BUCKETS):
Tags: Ed Asner, Pixar, Up