It's become an annual event for us -- attending opening night of a new Pixar movie at the start of the summer movie season. The event comes along with a tacit agreement that we can expect to see the film at least once more in the movie theatre before it moves on to DVD. And so it is with "UP", the latest minor gem to emerge from Pixar. I say minor gem only because "UP", while an outstanding movie for this season, isn't quite in the class of Pixar's greatest masterpieces, "The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille", which may be the best animated films I've ever seen (even with due credit to the works of Hayao Miyzaki and Brad Bird's "The Iron Giant").
This isn't meant to take anything away from "UP", a film that is filled with brilliant flourishes, laugh out loud humor, sterling voice acting, and characters we enjoy spending time with. In truth, I found "UP" more emotionally affecting than any other Pixar movie I've seen. During the opening 10-12 minutes, we are introduced to budding young explorer Carl Fredrickson and the girl, Ellie, who will eventually become his wife and then wordlessly follow their lives through joy, heartbreak, and loss, a sequence that is absolutely stunning. I don't know that there was a dry eye in the house at the end of it. I know mine certainly weren't.
With the stage set , the movie really gets rolling as Carl, now a lonely, unhappy 78-year old, sets off on a journey by taking his house aloft with thousands of balloons in an effort to complete an adventure that he and Ellie had dreamt about since childhood. Once Carl and the house, together with a Wilderness Scout named Russell, arrive in South America, they encounter a brilliantly colored bird, an unexpected villian, and Dug the dog, who has a collar that vocalizes perfectly and hilariously exactly what and how we all know dogs think ("Hi there, I just met you and I love you!").
It's at this point that the movie loses a bit of the soaring grandeur that it enjoyed as Carl's house takes flight, preferring instead for an "old guy/young boy learn to appreciate each other" dynamic along with plenty of chases and physical comedy. The wonder of the opening sequences fades just a bit in the same way that the brilliant first half of "Wall-E" gave way to a bit more of a theme park ride once the setting moved into space (the lovely dancing scene excepted). Nevertheless, the jungle scenes in "UP" are still great fun.
"UP" tells a tale of dreams deferred and regained, something that might resonate more with the adults in the audience were more likely to than the children. It's clear that Pixar's writers and directors want to speak to the adults just as much as the children. In doing so, they blessedly avoid the trite, flat stories or self-referential pop culture gags that are found in so many other animated films that are churned out by other studios. While "UP" may lack the depth, the questions, and the thematic layers that made Pixar films like "The Incredibles" "Ratatouille" and to a slightly lesser extent, "Wall-E" so effective, it still touches you, making you ache every time Carl grieves for and speaks to his late wife. That doesn't make "UP" any less a movie for kids as illustrated by the screams of laughter filling the theatre from young and old alike.
Along with the solid storytelling, "UP" adds to Pixar's bag of animation tricks. The sight and sound of the thousands of balloons rising, bumping against each other, squeaking as they rub, is stunning as is the depth and detail in the animation of Kevin, the mysterious , iridescent bird discovered in South America. The attention to detail is amazing, whether it's the faint stubble that Carl begins to grow to the worn creases in his leather shoes in contrast to the grain of the wooden floorboards. Pixar is so clearly head and shoulders above competing animation studios in terms of story and craft that it's almost unfair. It's this combination that allows "UP" to soar.