“Up” is an odd bird, and that’s not just because one of the movie’s co-stars is an odd bird. It’s the first Pixar movie that could possibly happen in the human world, as opposed to the fish world, rat world or insect world. Its story is pretty simple by Pixar standards, but it plunges emotional depths that the studio has not explored since, well, “Up” director Pete Docter’s last effort, “Monsters, Inc.” By Pixar standards, it’s a massive departure on a number of levels, but it also shows just how much smarter – and more courageous – they are about the movies they make. Pitch a movie with a 78-year-old man as the lead character to DreamWorks Animation, and watch them scatter like cockroaches.
Carl Fredrickson (voiced by Ed Asner) is a recent widower who’s kicking himself because he and his late wife Ellie never took the trip to Paradise Falls – a mysterious section of South America – that they dreamed of as kids. When Carl is faced with being forced into a nursing home, he decides to use the balloons that he sells for a living to literally lift his house up from its foundation and fly to Paradise Falls. The problem is that an eager wilderness explorer named Russell (Jordan Nagai) was on his porch when he left the ground. (Carl thought he had gotten rid of him when he sent him on a snipe hunt the day before.) The two find their way to Paradise Falls, but it is not at all like Carl imagined. It’s foggy, barren…and littered with talking dogs.
There is more to the story, but to say more would spoil the few surprises left, and truth be told, the movie’s gold is mined in Carl, Russell, the dogs – well, a dog, the lovable pointer Dug – and the aforementioned odd bird. In fact, those who felt short-changed by “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” may get their fix here; “Up” has the same old-school adventure vibe, but it’s funnier and more thrilling.
And if you’re at all the crying type at movies, bring a packet of Kleenex. The montage of Carl and Ellie’s life is heartbreaking, and while Carl “talks” to Ellie throughout the movie, Docter is careful not to yank the heartstrings until they snap. He also makes sure that Russell talks and acts like the excitable little boy that he is (rather than the little adult that most movie kids are), and even the talking dogs act like dogs for the most part, and Dug, voiced by co-director Bob Peterson (he also provided the voice of “Roz” in “Monsters Inc.” and Mr. Ray in “Finding Nemo”), steals the movie as a result.
The worst thing I can say about “Up” is that there is a lingering sense that Docter’s holding back a little, that he’s trying to keep his movie a little too grounded. The bird (it has a name, but I can’t bring myself to reveal it), who’s nearly as funny as Dug, could have used a little more screen time as well. These are unfortunate flaws, but not deadly ones, especially in light of what they get right. So many movies bend over backwards to appeal to today’s oh-so-smart (read: snarky) and overly coddled kids, but “Up” chooses old-school heart and soul over modern-day cynicism. How refreshing.(4 / 5)
This originally ran May 28, 2009 on Bullz-Eye.com.