As buoyant and richly tinted as the balloons that figure so prominently in its story, Up is also thoroughly grounded in real emotion and ideas of substance. How’s that for an instant boost? The result is a lovely, thoughtful, and yes, uplifting adventure (in 3-D where available) about an old guy, a kid, and a house that sails through the air, opening up new routes in life to people who thought they were stuck in their loneliness. The movie — which opened the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, a fresh choice — is Pixar’s 10th commanding feature-length demonstration that the most inventive and fully rounded stories in movies today are being told by characters who require an animator’s hand to breathe. Up is a beaut. And for once, 3-D animation proves its worth. (More on that in a moment.)
Up is a gentle ride, as befits the Walt Disney PG imprimatur. But I’ve rarely seen a message of such square sincerity — Life’s biggest adventures can be found in your own backyard, shared with people you love! — told with such unselfconscious joy and bright good humor. Who says squares can’t be hip? The star of the saga is a squat, sour old widower named Carl (voiced with Lou Grant-quality authority by Ed Asner), a balloon salesman in his late 70s with a head as blockish as a toaster. (Carl’s boxy black eyeglass frames, sitting atop a Patch Adams bulb of a nose, only emphasize the set angles of his ways; the guy looks like a cross between Spencer Tracy and an eccentric out of a George Booth cartoon.) We learn that Carl’s late wife, Ellie (who looks related to Helen Parr/Elastigirl from The Incredibles), was the real free spirit and would-be explorer of the family, and that the two always planned a trip-of-a-lifetime to a magical waterfall in South America. But daily living got in the way, and Carl and Ellie stayed put: A short, wordless tribute montage reviewing their lives together from childhood through childless marriage and old age is as deeply textured as any great novel.
A holdout in the neighborhood while colorless high-rises spring up around him, Carl sinks into emotional decrepitude — until two things happen. First, he decides to tie thousands of balloons to his old house and float to South America on his own. (He’s that identifiable type, someone afraid of sampling the new without schlepping the familiar along for safety.) Second, in the days before takeoff, he’s visited by a pint-size stranger. An overenthusiastic scouting-type misfit bursting with boyish energy, Russell (expressive newcomer Jordan Nagai) is as round and bouncy as a balloon himself. When he becomes an accidental stowaway on Carl’s great adventure, he’s unwelcome as far as Carl is concerned. But Russell turns out to be invaluable — not to mention loyal and trustworthy, a friend indeed.
Each specimen in the movie’s wild parade of exotic South American animals is worth cheering, and the hilarious, acutely observed dogs who greet Carl and Russell in their new world deserve their own canine-centric spin-off feature. Likewise, under the tender direction of Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.), every detail of the production is quietly exquisite. (Docter co-wrote the screenplay with Bob Peterson, who gets a codirecting credit and also supplies the voice of Dug, the dog nerd in the pack.) Michael Giacchino’s gorgeous music, invoking great Max Steiner scores from the ’40s and ’50s, steers the story’s emotional shifts with great elegance. The renderings, the color palette, the small and generous jokes, the perspective as balloons lift a whole house in the air — all are breathtaking.
But the movie’s most important accomplishment may be that we’re never noodged or even urged to notice these things. Even the sophisticated effects now attainable in 3-D animation are worth about as much as a bunch of balloons unless we can feel what a character is going through, and why. At a press conference at Cannes after the first screening of Up, Disney Pixar creative honcho John Lasseter explained that although he loves 3-D as a ”fun toy,” he has no use for disruptive tricks that leap out of the screen. ”3-D should supply depth that furthers the emotion of the scene,” he said. Can complicated technical virtuosity be reduced to something as simple as that? Yes, if you’re Up to it. A