Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 05/29/09 02:59:28

"Adventure! Comedy! Drama! Balloons!"
5 stars (Awesome)

It’s no longer a novelty how Pixar keeps making great movies. “Up” is their tenth feature film, and by now we must admit that their perfect-thousand batting average is no longer a pleasant surprise. It’s an expected gold standard.

What is a surprise - a wonderful, lovely, splendid surprise - is how the studio is taking chances with their storytelling. After a string of films that used premises you could also get from other studios (albeit with much, much greater results; imagine DreamWorks handling a talking toys movie), Pixar’s top players are now stretching their imaginations in unexpected directions, pulling us along for the ride with adventures featuring rodent chefs and Broadway-loving robots and now, with “Up,” a 78-year-old retired balloon salesman who flies his house to South America.

It’s a breathtaking sight. Even if you’ve seen the commercials, you’ll still find a gentle awe in watching Carl Frederickson (voiced by Ed Asner) float away in his house, above the city that outgrew him, through the clouds, toward his childhood dream. As flights of fancy go, this one’s a pip.

Before he flies away, though, we must know why he’s going. The film - directed by Peter Docter (who directed “Monster’s Inc.” and co-wrote “WALL-E”), co-directed by Bob Peterson (he co-wrote “Finding Nemo”), and scripted by both - opens with Carl as a quiet kid obsessed with grand adventure, especially the newsreel exploits of national hero Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). Young Carl comes across chatty Ellie (Elie Docter), who also dreams of one day flying off to the mysterious Paradise Falls, where Muntz said he once found strange prehistoric beasts.

The prologue isn’t just quickie backstory; it’s key in showing us how shy, quiet Carl found escape - and someone to love. What follows is a heartbreaking montage - a masterpiece of wordless storytelling - of Carl and Ellie growing old together, sharing their dream of Paradise Falls but always having to back away from it whenever real life struck, all those medical bills and home repairs and making do with the small things. Peterson refuses to shy away from grown-up drama, and the tragedies of the Fredricksens’ lives will resonate more with parents than with their kids (but who said cartoons are just for the kids?). The marvel is in how quickly the film grabs us, and how little it does to tell us everything we need to know. Carl dreams of escape now not just to fulfill his own childhood dream, but to remain connected to his now-departed Ellie. Now is the time for him to fulfill his promise to her. It’s sweeter and kinder and more emotional than any other studio could make it.

And then comes the adventure, and the comedy, as Carl makes his great escape. The first trouble is with Russell (Jordan Nagai), the wilderness scout who found himself stuck under the porch during liftoff; it creates a terrific odd couple comedy duo, the motormouth kid and the grumpy old man. The second trouble is when they land off course and must make the rest of the trek on foot; I think of the two hiking along, tethered to a floating house, and oh, how I smile. The third trouble is the giant bird and the talking dog.

The talking dog is Dug, voiced by Peterson in a way I’d like to think all dogs would talk if they could. He’s happy and friendly and not too bright, and how can you resist a mutt that says “I have just met you and I love you!”? That, in eight short words, is a dog.

Dug is one of a pack of dogs fitted with a translator collar, an invention of... well, that would be telling, now, wouldn’t it? Needless to say, Dug is our guide, taking us from the very funny, very smart second act to the very thrilling, very smart third act, build entirely around old school adventure, the kind with jungles and blimps and men of derring-do, with Carl doing must of the derring, much to his surprise but not ours.

It is, it should go without saying, all beautifully animated and lushly produced. But anyone can do beautiful and lush. What makes “Up” so very special is how it insists on tying everything into character. This may be a movie that climaxes with a fight atop a zeppelin, but every move the story takes is in the service of Carl and Russell as authentic people. (Yes, you can have flying houses and talking dogs and still tell a story about authentic people.) Russell’s home life isn’t too great; the kid needs a Carl in his life. Carl, meanwhile, needs to learn that his dreams might not have been as dashed as he thought, that his adventure may have simply taken a different road, but first, can he let go of his regrets? And what of... ah, but again, that would be telling.

It’s all a fantastic experience the way only Pixar could make it, a touching, intelligent story punctuated with gentle whimsy and bold excitement, a sort of all-in-one adventure. It is, of course, gorgeously animated and expertly produced, but the heart of the matter is the story, which is the reason they invented words like “delight.” The studio’s tenth project is as utterly captivating as its first. And second. And third. And fourth...

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