[29 May 2009]

By Renée Scolaro Mora


If any haters out there are secretly hoping that Pixar’s tenth feature will fall flat, they can forget it. Up measures up to the hype, including the honor of being the first animated feature to open the Cannes Film Festival and glowing early reviews. Its title may seem a bit lackluster (though perfectly matched to its no-fuss protagonist) and its trailer a little vague, but these belie Up‘s frankly delightful storytelling.

Up begins with shy, young Carl Fredrickson (Edward Asner) at the movie theater, following the adventures of his idol, adventurer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). We learn that Muntz made a name for himself by flying to far-away locations in his airship The Spirit of Adventure and bringing back exotic bones. But when the giant bird skeleton he found in Paradise Falls, Venezuela, is labeled a fraud, Muntz returns there to find another one and clear his name, never to be heard from again.

Carl soon meets another Muntz fan, the boisterous and optimistic Elie (Elie Docter). Carl and Elie’s life-long love story is beautifully told without dialogue, an appealing montage accompanied by instrumental music. They marry and buy their old “clubhouse” for their home; he has a balloon business; they picnic and goof around and save their pennies for their dream adventure to Paradise Falls. But life interrupts frequently with mishaps that require dipping into the Paradise Falls fund and more painful realities that mean giving up some dreams altogether. Through all this, the couple sticks together into old age until Elie dies and poor Carl is left alone in their house (now almost a shrine), still talking to her and feeling bad that he never got the chance to take her to Venezuela.

So intent is Carl on holding onto Elie that he refuses to give up their home even after it is nearly consumed by city sprawl. Defying dark-suited corpratey guys who hover like so many Mr. Potters waiting to buy him out, he finally decides to take off quite literally, house and all, for Paradise Falls. When Carl discovers stowaway Wilderness Explorer Russell (Jordan Nagai) cowering on his now airborne front porch, he is none too pleased. Chubby and chatty, Russell is the very opposite of Carl in every sense, and so, exactly what Carl needs to break out of his curmudgeonly loner stance.

Much like young Elie, Russell is determined, spontaneous, and sentimental. He talks too much and sees adventure everywhere. In a refreshing change from the norm, Up doesn’t overplay the fact that Carl will learn a thing or two from Russell by painting the adult as a moron and the child as wise beyond his years. Russell is very much a child in need of adult supervision and Carl needs to nurture something beyond his own grief.

Up is full of fun and fantasy, particularly when the two arrive at Paradise Falls and find themselves followed about by the great bird Muntz had discovered (named ” Kevin” by Russell, before he figures out the bird is a she).  Still, Up earns its PG rating with complex emotional situations even beyond Elie’s death. Carl and Russell both feel lonely, abandoned, and sad: the boy’s father’s absence motivates his attachment to Carl and his efforts to earn his approval. Likewise, the dangers posed by Muntz include actual bodily harm and even death.

The one element of Up that quickly wears thin is Muntz’s talking dog thugs. Fitted with translator collars so they can speak English (and other languages), the animals do Muntz’s bidding, meaning they search for the bird that will allow him to reclaim his fame. The dog named Dug (Bob Peterson) verbalizes all his devotion and distraction (intermittently shouting “Squirrel!” mid-sentence), and that would have been plenty. But the rest of the pack, including Alpha (Delroy Lindo), is simply overkill. Kevin doesn’t talk, yet her curiosity, nurturing, and concern for her babies are conveyed with convincing charm.

3D doesn’t add much to Up either. Sure, the flight scenes evoke a sense of sailing over vast landscapes or hovering over huge precipices. But one could also argue that 3D detracts from one of Up‘s best elements, its gorgeous colors, since the glasses diminish their brightness considerably.

Still, these complaints are minor. Up‘s appeal and its requisite “lessons” are both happily multi-generational. Carl goes through life, like Muntz in a way, only seeing adventure in far away places or worse, as something you go after for its own sake. But Elie, it turns out, saw everyday life as an adventure, something Carl never seemed to know about her. Russell embodies that same spirit when, in the middle of the Venezuelan jungle with a huge rare bird to his right and a house held up by thousands of colorful balloons hovering over his head, he reminisces about his favorite thing in life: sitting on the curb with his dad, eating ice cream and counting cars.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/94122-up/