'Up': More Pixar Perfection
Mary Pols, Special to MSN Movies
Any movie that captures the depths of human grieving, the vise grip of mortality and the heartbreak of missed opportunities is remarkable, although, usually, not all that fun. Pixar's latest, "Up," accomplishes all of the above with grace and wisdom, but what's extraordinary about the studio's 10th film -- and its first in 3-D -- is that it is also hilarious and likely to charm every member of the family.
Once again, Pixar challenges itself with a protagonist who is, at least superficially, less than bewitching. Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) is not a rat, race car or robot, but he does represent a demographic generally cast aside by our culture: the elderly. Retired balloon salesman Carl is not just an old man, he's a crotchety widower, resisting the retirement community and clinging to the home he once shared with his wife, Ellie, even as a growing city threatens to overtake his small patch of land.
The movie is a double love story. First there is the love between Carl and Ellie (as a child, she's voiced by Elie Docter, the daughter of director Pete Docter), which plays out in a wordless but lyrical and eloquent montage. It demonstrates the crushing weight of being left behind. It wrecks you. And it sets you up to wish the very best for Carl, even if he's a grump. Docter (third animator in at Pixar and director of "Monsters, Inc.") and his co-writer/director, Bob Peterson, modeled him on George Booth cartoons from the New Yorker, Walter Matthau, and Spencer Tracy, who he most physically resembles.
The second love story is the one Carl has with a boy and a dog and, more broadly, life. From the time they were children, he and Ellie planned to have great adventures, starting with following in the footsteps of explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) by visiting Paradise Falls in South America (inspired by multiple locations, including Angel Falls in Venezuela and Mount Roraima in Guyana). That never happened. But then, in a last-ditch effort to save himself from becoming an inmate in a nursing home, Carl harnesses thousands of helium balloons to his house and literally takes flight, with Paradise Falls as his goal.
He's accompanied, inadvertently, by an openhearted boy in a Wilderness Explorer uniform, Russell (Jordan Nagai). Russell looks a bit like the plump, floating people of "Wall-E," except he's determined to be useful in the world. His back-story is only hinted at, but it's clear he's the child of divorce, and a boy who misses his father almost as much as Carl misses Ellie.
There are so many important metaphors here, revolving around the aging man rising heavenward, carrying with him everything that remains of his days, that the movie nearly overwhelms you with its beauty. The strange imagery of this house, soaring above the clouds, is instantly, powerfully, right and unforgettable. As with "The Wizard of Oz," you see "Up" and can't imagine a world without it, even though none of this ever entered into your previous fantasy world.
But at Pixar, an ability to put existence -- human or otherwise -- into perspective has always gone hand-in-hand with an unbeatable sense of humor. Cue what's waiting for Carl and Russell in South America: a pack of dogs that are Pixar's most sublimely amusing creations yet. Through specially engineered collars, these dogs don't really talk, it's more like they think aloud. Dug, who looks like a squattened golden retriever, is the sweetest. Alpha, the Doberman pinscher who leads the pack, is the meanest, and, due to a technical error involving his sound box, also the funniest. I look forward to studying their every word at leisure in the coming years, when my own laughter isn't drowning out their next line.
Finally, a word must be said about Pixar's first foray into the rapidly growing trend of 3-D animation. The 3-D technology is subtle and expertly used by craftsmen and craftswomen who make it merely another tool in their artistic arsenal, rather than an opportunity to throw things at the audience (as in, say, the oafish "Monsters vs. Aliens"). That's smart thinking, given that kid-oriented movies have substantial second lives inside the world's living rooms, where 3-D glasses are not the norm. The added visual dimensionality of "Up" is a treat, but it's not essential. I suspect that won't be true of the first movie to convince me of the worth of 3-D, the visually brilliant "Coraline," which I'm not sure I could bear to see in its flattened form. "Up" is so fully realized that it can live large no matter the dimension.Mary Pols is a Bay Area-based journalist. She reviews movies for Time.com and was for many years a film critic for the San Jose Mercury News, Oakland Tribune and Contra Costa Times. She is also the author of a memoir, "Accidentally on Purpose," published in 2008 by Ecco/HarperCollins. When she's inspired, usually by something weird, she blogs about it at www.maryfpols.com.