Someday, Pixar is going to do it -- they're going to create an emotionally uninspiring, lackluster animated movie. But in the meantime, they're still putting out delightful animated movies like "Up," which defies the usual kid-movie conventions by starring a crotchety old man. It's a charming, fun little adventure story with flying dogs and balloon-powered houses, but underlying it is a bittersweet little story about loss and love.
As a child, the shy Carl Fredricksen bonded with the oddball Ellie over their shared love of adventure, the explorer Charles Muntz, and Paradise Falls. They later married, move into their "clubhouse" together, and lived a long, sadly childless life together. When Ellie died, she had never fulfilled her dream of going to Paradise Falls.
Now crotchety, alone and harassed by a real estate developer, Carl (Ed Asner) is finally ordered to a retirement home. But he isn't going quietly -- instead he attaches thousands of balloons to his house and floats it away toward South America. But he accidentally takes an enthusiastic, naive Wilderness Explorer (a thinly-veiled Boy Scout) named Russell (Jordan Nagai) along for the ride. Poor kid was just trying to earn an "assisting the elderly" badge.
And the jungle trek to Paradise Falls turns out to have some surprising obstacles: a big emu-like bird that Russell names Kevin, a talking dog named Dug ("I am jumping on you, bird!"), and a mysterious old man who lives deep in the heart of the jungle. Turns out the old guy is very familiar to Carl -- and to capture Kevin, he's willing to sacrifice Carl and Russell.
Industry experts were babbling about how "Up" wouldn't be as popular as the previous Pixar movies, because the protagonist is basically a crusty old coot. Well, shows what they know. It ended up becoming one of those classic movies that somehow appeals to all ages -- while the humor and action appeal to children, adults can appreciate Carl's love for his lost wife, and his slow realization that he's clinging to the past.
In fact, the first ten minutes are some of the most heart-tugging, quietly bittersweet scenes I've seen in a long time. Without a word, they show all the ups and downs of a realistic marriage -- joys, sorrows (Ellie's inability to have children), growing old together, and finally loss.
But it's not a depressing movie by any stretch -- in fact, it's like a childhood fantasy come to life, complete with a floating house suspended on hundreds of balloons, and biplanes piloted by a talking dog army.. Plenty of great dialogue ("Do you want to play a game? It's called See Who Can Go the Longest Without Saying Anything." "Cool! My mom loves that game!") and an action-packed climax in an aged airship.
Ed Asner is absolutely perfect as ubergrouch Carl -- crotchety, grumpy, and determined to fulfill his wife's lifelong dream, but gradually realizing he's clinging to the past. Nagai is equally perfect as Carl's polar opposite: a naive, chattery Scout who is determined to reunite Kevin with her baby chicks. And the utterly adorable Dug and the other dogs deserve special notice. These creatures are utterly hilarious -- they talk ("I hid under your porch because I love you") and act the way dogs would if they talked. Three words: cone of shame.
The two-disc edition is going to have some very nice extras, but once again people with regular-def DVDs are going to get shafted because the Blu-ray edition will have a bunch of exclusive stuff. Grr. As for this one, there's a digital copy, the director's audio commentary, kinda-alternate-ending "The Many Endings of Muntz," and the documentary "Adventure Is Out There" about the research for this movie.
There are also a pair of adorable animated shorts. "Partly Cloudy" has a much-abused stork having to deliver potentially harmful baby creatures from a kind but clueless cloud. And "Dug's Special Mission" is a sort of backstory for the adorable Dug, explaining what the heck he was doing before he met up with Carl and Russell.
"Up" continues Pixar's running tally of gloriously animated, emotionally layered movies that the entire family can enjoy. With that, I have only one more thing to say... SQUIRREL!
By E. Solinas