In its opening stretch, the new Pixar movie Up flies high, borne aloft by a sense of creative flight and a flawlessly realized love story. Its on-screen and unlikely escape artist is Carl Fredricksen, a widower and former balloon salesman. Voiced with appreciable impatience by Ed Asner, Carl isn’t your typical American animated hero. He’s 78, for starters, and the years have taken their toll on his lugubrious body and spirit, both of which seem solidly tethered to the ground.
And away: Fredricksen is an unlikely hero.
Eventually a bouquet of balloons sends Carl and his house soaring into the sky, where they go up, up and away and off to an adventure in South America with a portly child, some talking dogs and an unexpected villain. Though the initial images of flight are wonderfully rendered—the house shudders and creaks and splinters and groans as it’s ripped from its foundation by the balloons—the movie remains bound by convention, despite even its modest three-dimensional depth. This has become the Pixar way. Passages of glorious imagination are invariably matched by stock characters and banal story choices, as each new movie becomes another manifestation of the movie industry divide between art and the bottom line.
In Up, that divide is evident between the early scenes, which tell Carl’s story with extraordinary tenderness and brilliant narrative economy, and the later scenes of him as a geriatric action hero. The movie opens with the young Carl enthusing over black and white newsreel images of his hero, a world-famous aviator and explorer, Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). Shortly thereafter, Carl meets Ellie, a plucky, would-be adventurer who, a few edits later, becomes his beloved wife, an adult relationship that the director Pete Docter brilliantly compresses into some four wordless minutes during which the couple dream together, face crushing disappointment and grow happily old side by side. Like the opener of Wall-E and the critic’s Proustian reminiscence of childhood in Ratatouille, this is film-making at its purest.
In the story, schoolboy Russell (Jordan Nagai) hitches a ride with Carl, forcing the old man to assume increasingly grandfatherly duties. But before that happens, there are glories to savour, notably the scenes of Carl—having decided to head off on the kind of adventure Ellie and he always postponed—taking to the air. When the multihued balloons burst through the top of his wooden house, it’s as if a thousand gloriously unfettered thoughts have bloomed above his similarly squared head.
In time Carl and Russell, an irritant whose Botero proportions recall those of the human dirigibles in Wall-E, float to South America where they, the house and the movie come down to earth. Carl comes face-to-face with his childhood hero, Muntz, an eccentric with dashing looks who lives with a legion of talking dogs.
There’s something to be said about the revelation that heroes might not be what you imagined, particularly in a children’s movie, and particularly one released by Disney (Muntz seems partly inspired by Charles Lindbergh at his most heroic and otherwise). But much like Russell, the little boy with father problems, and much like Dug, the dog with master issues, the story starts to feel ingratiating enough to warrant a kick. OK, OK, not a kick, just some gently expressed regret.
©2009/The New York Times
Up released in theatres on Friday.
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