There’s never a dull moment in a Pixar Animation Studios feature. Sometimes there’s scarcely even a chance to take a breath. In becoming one of the most beloved and reliable brands in contemporary pop culture, Pixar’s CGI classics, beginning with Toy Story 14 years ago, set a snappy, almost relentless pace of first-rate sight gags, one-liners and funny voice performances.
Recently, however, Pixar’s films have occasionally slowed down to savor more idyllic moments. Lightning McQueen and Sally took a detour along Ornament Valley's byways in Cars. Remy the Rat rapturously blended one ingredient after another into mouth-watering entrees during Ratatouille. WALL-E danced to old show tunes and touched the glittering chips of Saturn’s rings. In these instances, the computer-generated images achieve a kind of living lyricism.
Up, Pixar’s 10th feature film, maintains that kind of lyrical tone from nearly start to finish. Where speed and abundance characterized the superb earlier comedies, Up’s breezy, bittersweet adventure finds so much virtue in simplicity, the others look busy by comparison. Up is anything but languid, however. In grumpy, septuagenarian retiree Carl Fredricksen, Monsters, Inc. director Pete Docter finds a hero unexpectedly worthy of Indiana Jones.
As a Depression-era kid, Carl thrills to the newsreel exploits of explorer Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer), who pilots his dirigible the Spirit of Adventure to exotic climes. Brought together by a mutual admiration for Muntz, young Carl bonds with tomboyish Ellie, and their make-believe adventures give way to an achingly lovely montage of their marriage and life together. Alas, real-world demands force the couple to perpetually postpone travelling until Ellie becomes too frail for such excitement. If Jessie the Cowgirl’s “When Somebody Loved Me” sequence in Toy Story 2 makes you tear up, you’d better brace yourself.
As a stubborn widower, Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) refuses to budge from the couple's pastel Victorian home, even though it’s surrounded by a mammoth urban construction site. Rather than go gently to a retirement home, Carl resolves to keep his pledge to Ellie and sets off for South America with the help of a zillion helium balloons. Carl finds an unwanted companion in the perky Boy Scout Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai). Russell wants to help the elderly man, but never expected to be shanghaied by a flying house.
Docter turns Up’s whimsical notions into surprisingly potent metaphors. On arrival in South America, Carl and Russell end up on terra firma, tethered to the house like it’s a parade float. Docter shows Carl tugging his home, possessions and memories almost literally on his back, as if he’s both treasuring his past and shouldering a Sisyphean burden. Ironically, Carl arrives in the land of his dreams but still drags his mundane reality around with him. Usually it’s the other way around and we carry our dreams through our real lives.
Carl encounters a sinister alter ego when he discovers the fate of long-lost Muntz, but Up doesn’t dwell on its heavier ideas. Instead, the film strikes a lighter-than-air balancing act, with dizzying adventure scenes inspired by pulp novels and movie serials. Docter shows his genius for spinning endless variations off a handful of clever ideas. For instance, Dug, a floppy-eared, slack-tongued mutt, has a gizmo on his collar that translates his single-minded canine concerns into words. (Co-director Bob Petersen provides Dug’s hilariously earnest delivery.) Dug’s ability to speak turns out to be the beginning of a series of uproarious, dog-based jokes that prove as inspired as anything in Pixar’s canon.
As two of Pixar’s rare human heroes, Carl and Russell have facial designs that wittily reflect their life experiences. The years seem to have peeled the soft spots off Carl, who sports blocky glasses, a potato nose and a jaw like a bulldozer blade. Russell’s small, close-set features and rounded, oval head give him a smooth, egglike aspect. It’s no surprise that their mismatched friendship enables them both to take flight. The audience feels privileged to soar and drift with them. In fact, you may never want to go back down to earth.