Up features a wonderful protagonist: Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner), age 78. A widower soon to be evicted off his property, Carl decides it’s time to embark on the adventure that he always wanted to take with his wife. By tying thousands of balloons to his house, Carl lifts off and sets a course for South America. Once airborne, he discovers that Russell (Jordan Nagai), a young Wilderness Explorer Scout, has inadvertently stowed away on board. When the two of them reach the jungles of South America, they encounter many perils, not the least of which is learning to get along.
Pixar has made me laugh and cry during the same film on multiple occasions, but now they’ve made me do it in the first 15 minutes. Up boasts a brilliant prologue, one that reminds us that grumpy old people don’t appear out of thin air. In today’s youth-obsessed culture, it’s easy to forget that all old people were once young. Carl Fredricksen grew grumpy over time, and for specific reasons. The early montage reflecting on his marriage has no dialogue, but conveys the kind of genuine emotion that storytellers dream about. Carl is a rich, fully-developed character, and pairing him with a young child was a masterstroke.
When Up isn’t moving you to tears, it’s making you laugh, and not just half-heartedly, with under-your-breath chuckles. The scenes between Carl and Russell had me hooting and cackling, which might have been embarrassing had I been the only one in the theater making such a racket. A grumpy old man and a joyful, optimistic child - as a comedic filmmaker, you would have to work pretty hard to lose with that setup. The rest of the comedy comes through some wonderfully innovative fantasy, which complements the realism unexpectedly well. The human characters are grounded and relatable, but then you’ve also got mythic birds, talking dogs, and a flying house.
As always with Pixar, the magnificent animation captivates, but it takes a backseat to the story. Story has come first at Pixar since day one, and it’s remarkable that Pixar’s beautifully rendered movies aren’t known for their animation. Everyone loves them for their stories and their characters. In addition to being Pixar’s tenth film, Up also marks the studio’s first 3D feature. 3D effects are so rich and impressive nowadays, and they work especially well with computer-generated images. The film would still play very well in a traditional format, but if you have a chance to see it in 3D, it’s worth the few extra dollars.
In an unexpected way, Up reminded me of one of my favorite novels, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Carl Fredricksen learns late in the game that he’s been missing the joy in life’s little moments. He always dreamed of adventure, but failed see the adventure in the world immediately around him. His journey made for one of the funniest, most touching, and most rewarding filmgoing experiences I’ve had in a long time. Before the film began, the audience cheered during the teaser trailer for next year’s Toy Story 3. Pixar is returning to the familiar territory that began it all, which I know they wouldn’t do unless they had a great story. I’ve already decided not to play my silly Pixar game on that one, or any others, for that matter. I’m just going to sit back and enjoy the magic.
Click here to view the trailer
For the Parents:
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some peril and action.
Up has some intense action (especially intense in 3D), but nothing to worry about. You’ll probably be far more emotionally exhausted than your children, because your children won’t fully appreciate Carl’s backstory. Kids will eat up the humor, the visuals, and even the grumpy old protagonist. Definitely treat your kids to this picture, but know that you’ll also be treating yourself.