The following review contains spoilers.
The latest film from the animation wizards at Pixar is always an event to mark on your movie calendars. They stand head and shoulders above all other animation studios (some would argue above movie studios period, animated or otherwise), and this, their tenth offering, is right up there with their best.
What Up advances is Pixar's reputation for making animated movies that belie the expectations of the genre. From the majority of cinematic animated fare, we have come to expect bright colours, clichéd characters, and cheap laughs but nothing else. Not so with Pixar, and that continues with Up. It has everything you'd want from a movie of its type: slick, polished, sometimes jaw-dropping technical animation; extremely likable and relatable characters; genuine, effective humour for kids and adults alike; and maybe most importantly, a heavy dose of heart and emotional resonance.
In their nine previous outings, it may have seemed fairly out there to base their films around usually inanimate or plain unrealistic objects or people. They've done toys, fish, bugs, rats, cars, monsters, superheroes, and robots. But Up might be their ballsiest move yet — concentrating on an old man as their protagonist. Looking at the character of Carl Fredricksen – as wonderfully rendered as he is – you wouldn't exactly think he'd be an entertaining, desired hero for an animated adventure. And yet, strangely, it's rather perfect. For the kids who will beg their parents to take them to the movie, it puts their grandparents in a great light, one that they might not have seen them in before. And it sets the film apart with its leading character from any other animated film I can think of.
It seems fitting for us, the audience, sitting there in wonder of the animation that's in front of our eyes, that Up should start off with Carl as a young boy in a movie theatre, wide-eyed while watching the traveling escapades of adventurer Charles Muntz. Already dressed up in the appropriate outfit for flying, Carl makes his way home, imagining his journey there as being narrated as if he were already the adventurer he dreams of being. On his way there he meets future wife Ellie, an equally eager wannabe adventurer with a certain talkative nature that leaves Carl almost awe-struck.
We then move into a simply incredible 10-minute sequence that chronicles Carl and Ellie's life together, from their marriage to her sad death (if you don't feel sad at that point, you're dead inside), all done without a single word. We then catch up with Carl as the lovable old man we spend the majority of the movie following. He's being forced out of his home and into a retirement village, which of course he's not happy with. So what does he do? Well, of course he ties thousands of helium balloons to his house and literally lifts off the ground, up into the sky, and flies away on the adventure he and his wife always wanted to go on. Did I mention Carl used to be a balloon salesman?
That's all within the first 15 minutes or so, and what follows is one of the most fun, funniest, exciting, and memorable adventures in years, animated or otherwise. Flying in the air and landing in the jungle allows Pixar to show off all manner of visuals, from a rainstorm almost bursting Carl's balloons to the exotic jungle trees and animals he encounters.
So is it just Carl on this journey, I hear you ask? Well, unfortunately for Carl, no it's not. Not long after taking off in his balloon-powered house, he hears a knock at the door, only to find that a young, excitable wilderness scout by the name of Russell has unwittingly been stranded on his porch. Watching Carl have this boy 70 years his junior bugging him on his journey to get to the waterfall he and his late wife had always dreamed of going to is an utter joy. Russell complains, nags, relentlessly asks questions, and generally makes the journey an annoying misery for Carl. The script, written by Bob Peterson and Peter Docter (who both also direct), is so fully of witty, insightful, and often flat-out hilarious dialogue that it ends up being one of the best animated scripts in years.
Carl and Russell aren't our only characters. We also have Dug the dog (utter genius), who is given an edge over other animated dogs because he can talk (due to a special collar his master has made for him). As we've come to expect from Pixar, they get the mannerisms and body movements of a dog down to an absolute tee. Along with Dug, we have a rare, multi-coloured bird nicknamed Kevin by the ever eager Russell (even though the bird is female), as well as a host of other dogs that belong to the same master as Dug does. Mixing slapstick with witty and intelligent humour is the dog-talking collar, notably when one of them has a loose wire and causes an intimidating Doberman pinscher to sound like the Chipmunks.
Continuing on the brilliance of Up is the voice casting. As usual, Pixar absolutely nail it. Ed Asner voices our hero, Carl, who brings a certain believability to the role; first-timer Jordan Nagai voices Russell, bringing a youthful buoyancy to his character; co-writer/director, Bob Peterson, voices Dug; and the distinctive voice of Christopher Plummer is what we hear coming out of the villain's mouth (I'll leave who the villain is as a surprise). They're not obvious voice casting choices, but they play their parts perfectly.
I was wary going into Up, not because I feared it wouldn't live up to its already glowing reputation, but because it marks Pixar's first venture into the land of 3D. To me, the technology is a novelty that almost always gets misused by just having things pointlessly coming out of the screen at you for no other purpose than having things come out of the screen at you. But with Up, Pixar have utilized the technology properly, by using it to enhance the story in a subtle and effective way, with little to no instances of things popping out at you for no reason. Other studios take note.
I will be surprised if Up doesn't get an Oscar nomination, and possibly even win the top prize, when that time rolls around again next year. It really is that good. Everything from heart, soul, and resonance to pure excitement, laughs and silliness are all to be found here, wrapped up in one stunningly animated, expertly put together package. As overall movies and stories, I've in the past found Pixar to be a tad on the overrated side (I've never disliked one of their movies, but The Incredibles comes to mind as over-praised) but they're always head and shoulders above every other competitors on the pure technical animation side of things. But with Up, they've made what is arguably they're greatest film (although Toy Story is still my own personal favourite), one that delivers as much on pure enjoyment as it does on its technical aspects. For what it's supposed to be, Up is just about as good as this sort of thing gets.