Apparently there is more than one way to make a movie about a cranky, recently widowed old white man pestered by a bright-eyed Asian kid lingering on his porch. Who knew? No disrespect to Clint Eastwood, who should try working with a few thousand animated balloons just for the hell of it sometime, but Up is pretty much the anti-Gran Torino. In that regard and just in general, it works, buoyantly.
Disney-Pixar’s take on the solitary geezer is not a wiry war-hardened jingoist but a stout shy guy who dreamed of airborne adventure as a boy, then found a soul mate with whom to share an earthbound life. As kids, Carl (voiced by Jeremy Leary) and Ellie (Elie Docter) bonded over newsreel reports of Paradise Falls, an idyllic patch of South American jungle discovered by the explorer (Christopher Plummer) who traveled there to load his dirigible with evidence of exotic fauna that archeologists couldn’t even believe. “Adventure is out there!” was the explorer’s motto, and Carl and Ellie meant to make it their own. They’d hoped to visit Paradise Falls themselves someday, but–as a brilliant, moving, elegantly expository montage reveals–life, and death, got in their way.
Alone now in a neighborhood urbanized beyond recognition, and threatened with relocation from his memory-soaked old Victorian to a retirement home, Carl (now voiced by Ed Asner) decides to send that bunch of balloons up through the chimney and float away from it all–toward the only place he can think to float away to.
If this plan sounds unreasonable, it’s probably because you’re jealous. Carl does have some logistical issues to contend with, most notably the aforementioned porch lingerer, a young Wilderness Explorer and accidental stowaway named Russell (Jordan Nagai), who hopes to earn a merit badge for “assisting the elderly.” In various ways, Russell seems like the just traveling companion Carl deserves, and with help from the peculiarly adorable creatures they accumulate (a talking dog, an exotic bird), they make their way together through a series of dazzling, sometimes harrowingly vertiginous escapades.
Writer-directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson’s felicity with pace, characterization and sentiment are fully consistent with Pixar’s typically extraordinary animation. In fact, it should be pointed out that Up doesn’t really need to be in 3D at all. For one thing, the glasses make it harder to wipe away tears. For another, the story has plenty of depth and grandeur to begin with. Of course it minds the small details, too: the imperfections of old window glass, the fur on a dog’s chest, the minor feats of weather by which fog gives way to misty sunshine and new moods, and so on.
One arresting moment just before Carl’s launch, when redevelopment looms all around his home, looks like a grateful homage to Virginia Lee Burton’s classic children’s book, The Little House. Then he’s breezed away to other, delightfully surreal and more cinematic referents: not just the tornado-twirled house of The Wizard of Oz, but even the hillside-hoisted steamship of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. Not to mention the simple marvel of The Red Balloon (the French obviously know what’s Up; it’s no wonder now that Pixar’s film was the ’09 Cannes opener).
But even if these allusions don’t ring any bells, the richness of the imagery is palpable, and timeless. Up floats its own steady course, and the willful simplicity of its title says it all: It is the opposite of down.