Director: Pete Docter
Cast: Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, John Ratzenberger, Delroy Lindo, Jordan Nagai, Bob Peterson, Jerome Ranft
Rating: PG for some peril and action.
By Gregg Tubb
From their first feature, Toy Story, to last year’s soulful and dazzling WALL-E, Pixar has reinvented the animated film and proven, without a doubt, that some of the best films being made are animated. Upping the ante (pun intended) from the daring Chaplin-esque first third of WALL-.E, Up plumbs emotional depths rarely seen in any film, while achieving new heights in the art of computer animation. This tale of a grumpy old man determined to recapture his inner adventurer and honor the memory of his late wife absolutely soars and is the first great film of 2009.
How Up tells its story is almost as important as the story itself. In a bold opening similar to WALL-E’s wordless and entrancing first act, Up tells the story of a couple’s entire life together in a warm and knowing series of brief vignettes, silent but for the haunting musical theme. The film then essentially picks up its story at the end of its main character’s life. This is risky, but magical filmmaking. In a few short minutes, we meet Carl Fredericksen (voiced to gruff perfection by Ed Asner) and his sweetheart Ellie. We see them meet as children, fall in love, marry, face life’s ups and downs and never waver in their absolute devotion to each other.
As kids, Carl and Ellie vowed to be explorers, but life dealt them a different hand. Money troubles stood in their way, and tragically, children were not in their future. Carl “crossed his heart” and promised to take Ellie to Paradise Falls in South America one day. The years pass, and sadly Ellie dies having never left their little town. With the city encroaching on their once idyllic little homestead, Carl, now a very grumpy old man, decides to finally keep his promise. Unleashing a swarm of hundreds of colorful balloons up his chimney, Carl and his house lift up into the air and begin to float towards South America.
Carl’s late-life adventure begins with an unanticipated stowaway aboard — a chirpy but fragile Wilderness Explorer named Russell. What follows is a delightful and visually stunning sojourn that includes giant prehistoric birds, talking dogs and diabolical rival explorers.
As fantastic as their journey is, what’s most remarkable is the real emotion that anchors the story. Carl and Russell develop a touching father-son relationship (Russell’s own father is absent), and Ellie’s spirit and Carl’s promise to her permeate every scene as the airborne house makes its perilous flight to the top of Paradise Falls.
Visually, Up is breathtaking, particularly in its depiction of nature. Director Pete Docter, a Christian, has said that his love of God’s creation drove him to try to display it in all its glory. The sweep and grandeur of the South American vistas represent a high water mark for computer graphics and the subtle use of 3D (where available) adds depth rather than in-your-face tricks.
While the film is obviously about chasing your dreams and finding adventure, the film’s deeper theme reminds us that life’s real adventure is in our relationships, in the people we love. For Carl, having Russell in his life turns out to be a far greater gift than finally seeing Paradise Falls. And as Carl looks back on his life with Ellie, he realizes that theirs really was a wonderful life, filled with the laughter, tears, love and the too-often overlooked small moments that make life worth living. What at first seems like a story about dreams deferred turns out to be one about dreams fulfilled.
From the very beginning, there is a touch of sadness to the film, and the first 15 minutes, in particular, might bring tears. It plumbs the pathos of losing a loved one, a theme rarely explored in an animated film. Yet, the emotion only adds resonance to the adventures that follow and helps separate Up from other soulless animated thrill rides. Up also focuses on life-long love, unswerving devotion and honoring one’s promises; a theme seen in Carl’s promise to Ellie as well as in the broken promises of Russell’s father. In its final frames, Up reminds us that life’s little joys and small blessings make our lives an adventure and give us rich and lasting memories.
Up will make you laugh and cry. Most of all, it will touch your heart. Catch it in 3D if you can, but you will enjoy it just as much in 2D because Up's characters, story and stirring messages need no visual tricks to catch you up and make you soar.