Pixar Animation’s tenth film for Disney is its first 3D effort, but though the effect is beautifully handled—subtly, and without the usual sort of exaggeration—it’s not why “Up” is such a delight, not far from the exalted heights of “Ratatouille.” The picture is simply a wonderful fable of relationships across the lines that separate generations and even species. And it should have broad appeal across the age spectrum.
The unlikely hero is an elderly widower, Carl Fredericksen (Ed Asner), whose life is shown in miniature in an extraordinary prologue. As a lonely kid (Jeremy Leary) in the 1940s, he was devoted to dreams of high adventure, particularly involving intrepid explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). A similar fascination had captured tomboy Ellie (Elie Docter), and it brought the two together; and eventually they married, always planning to save their money and follow in their hero’s footsteps by going to remote Paradise Falls in South America. But as a wordless, beautifully rendered montage shows, circumstances always intervened to prevent the trip, and Ellie died with the dream unfulfilled.
Now in his late seventies and retired from his job as a balloon street vendor, Carl finds their house surrounded by urban development, and an unhappy run-in with one of the workers leads to a court order that he move to a retirement home. Rather than comply, he uses thousands of helium-filled balloons to literally lift the house off its foundations, intending to fly it to the Falls. Unfortunately, he has an unwelcome stowaway—Russell (Jordan Nagai), a plump, intense wilderness scout who’s been bothering Carl in an effort to win his “helping the elderly” badge.
The unlikely duo eventually make their way to the general location Carl is seeking, but must drag the house through rugged terrain atop a huge mesa to get to the Falls themselves. During the trek they encounter a tall, goofy, brightly-colored bird that Russell names Kevin (though the moniker will ultimately prove quite inappropriate) and a lovable dog called Dug (Bob Peterson), equipped with a collar that transforms his barking into human speech.
It turns out that Dug is the mutt of a pack of hounds serving none other than the aged Muntz, who’s been living at the Falls in his dirigible for decades trying vainly to capture Kevin, the species over which he came to blows with the scientific community, ending his career. Initially he welcomes Carl and Russell, but soon comes to suspect that they’re enemies. That sets up a final confrontation filled with plenty of high-flying action, followed by a touching epilogue back home.
There are so many high points in “Up” that they’re difficult to count. From the imitation theatrical newsreel that opens the picture—a nod to “Citizen Kane”—to the last scene of Carl and Russell sitting on a corner curb, it’s filled with magical moments, which consistently avoid descending into the crassness so commonplace in so-called family films today. The sight of the Fredericksen house rising from the ground, carried off by the great mass of multicolored balloons, is enchanting, and the great vista of Paradise Falls is enthralling. Kevin’s antics are like a Road Runner cartoon writ longer and larger, and Dug’s deadpan delivery is a delight. Even the physical infirmity that comes with old age is employed for laughs—without being unduly coarsened in the process. One of the funniest bits comes when Carl and Muntz square off, sword against walker and dentures, in the final reel; the cracking of bone as they straighten up for combat is only the first delicious bit of business that marks their faceoff.
The voice work is impeccable, too. Ed Asner has great fun as the initially grumpy Carl and Plummer makes Muntz a smooth, oily villain, while Nagai is naturally likable and Peterson drolly amusing. Their work is complemented by Michael Giacchino’s unabashedly full, rich orchestral score.
“Up” is an animated movie that’s far more human than most live-action ones, and easily maintains the exalted standards we’ve come to expect from Pixar. It’s guaranteed to raise your spirits.