Higher and higher: An old man, a boy, and a talking dog take a fantastical voyage as only Pixar can imagine
I think we can safely say at this point that
Which is why "Up" comes as a shock. Its ambitions are emotional and visual rather than thematic, but on the most basic level the new film is pure vaudeville: a loopy flyaway fantasy that's hysterically funny if only to keep the darkness at bay. It's a wonderful movie - fit for the whole family and for once I mean that as praise - but it doesn't seem designed for a higher purpose the way, say, "WALL-E" did. "Up" is a breather, a respite, a romp, but one with infinite shades of feeling.
Most bizarrely - at least, to those who make their business selling plastic superheroes to our children - the hero is an old man. A very old man. Carl Fredericksen (voiced by Ed Asner, his Lou Grant snarl undimmed by time) is a crotchety widower whose cube-shaped face sits atop his wizened frame like a bobblehead. In an elegant visual touch, he has been given the white hair and thick horn-rimmed glasses of the late-era Cary Grant. Carl doesn't like much in this modern world, and in the opening moments of "Up," we learn why.
Those first scenes function as both a prologue and a life story compacted into 10 breathtakingly beautiful minutes - it's a Pixar short, really, and possibly the best the company has ever done. We see the young Carl, shy and entranced by 1930s newsreels of explorer Carl Muntz (Christopher Plummer), fall in with a delightful gap-toothed tomboy named Ellie. Time gracefully elides and they grow, marry, keep house, a world unto themselves. Then Ellie passes, and Carl is left with the dreams of the South American adventure they never took and a ramshackle home surrounded by urban towers. There's no place to go but, well, you know.
In its fantasy of geriatric escape, "Up" taps into a discontent our youth-obsessed culture rarely notices. The film's smart enough, though, to pack a stowaway: Russell (Jordan Nagai), an egg-shaped little kid and enthusiastic Wilderness Explorer looking to get his elderly-assistance merit badge. The duo's journey by balloon-lofted house is exciting and funny and just when you wonder where it's going to lead, the movie dumps us into a make-believe South American wonderland. There be monsters here, and one of them's a person.
None of these monsters are genuinely scary - the movie brings on a snarling pack of talking dogs but gives its leader, Alpha (screenwriter Bob Peterson), the voice of Alvin the Chipmunk. The inherent kid-friendliness of "Up" extends to its use of 3-D as a way to convey the vastness of the South American landscape rather than as an assault weapon; you won't miss a thing if you see it in 2-D, and how's that for subversive?
Fellow travelers attach themselves to Carl and Russell: a giant gooney bird nicknamed Kevin (it's a she), an outcast talking dog named Dug (Peterson again). One of the great pleasures of "Up" is that the bird acts like a bird and the dog talks exactly the way a dog would think, with sudden timeouts for imaginary squirrels and a genetic predisposition for tennis balls. Not one frame or line of dialogue here lacks wit; you could ignore the plot entirely and subsist happily on the craftsmanship of details - the way Carl's hand casually falls over Ellie's painted handprint on their mailbox, their souls united despite death.
There is a plot, obviously, and it involves the ancient explorer Muntz, gone barmy in pursuit of the gooney bird over the decades. "Up" thus comes down to a pitched battle between two old coots, a kid, a dog, and a surrealist's idea of an ostrich. Director Pete Docter (he helmed "Monsters, Inc." and co-wrote "WALL-E") manages the difficult feat of keeping the action aloft while conjuring a sense of ripe emotional weariness; the stakes are high because this is an old man's last chance to find any meaning in life. Because the movie's grounded, it's free to fly where it wants, and it does so with an exuberance and poignancy that at times feels majestic.
For those who've done their time in the valley of children's literature, "Up" glances off any number of classic tales: Carl's hemmed-in cottage evokes "The Little House" of Virginia Lee Burton, for instance, and Dug the dog carries echoes of the beloved Tock of "The Phantom Tollbooth." With its airborne action ballet, though - not to mention its intertwining of fantasy and hushed emotional depth - "Up" primarily calls to mind the films of Japanese animation great Hayao Miyazaki.
There's a satisfying sense of payback in that. Lasseter's a longtime Miyazaki fan whose legacy includes bringing the director's work to America (Disney will release "Ponyo" in August), and when this movie debuted at Cannes this month, Lasseter affirmed that "Miyazaki is in all the Pixar films." With "Up," his company has at last achieved something to stand with the master - a work dreamlike, delicious, and strange.