Magnified with the type of divine emotional majesty few animation spectacles could ever hope to reach, Disney/Pixar’s “Up” is a triumphant masterstroke for the studio and their Teflon reputation. Declining the red-carpet invitation to manufacture mawkish, feebly scripted pathos, “Up” instead aims for and achieves a splendid merger of heartache and soaring spirituality. For their 10th motion picture, the Pixar squad has hit pay dirt yet again, only with “Up,” the production team manages to weave together whimsy and poignancy in a visually dazzling, high-flying marvel of an adventure. Conceptually, it’s not a trailblazer, but the execution is perhaps Pixar’s most confident and irresistibly moving since their 1995 masterpiece, “Toy Story.”
Reeling from the death of his beloved wife Ellie, Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Edward Asner) is caught in a mournful stasis, maintaining his curmudgeonly senior citizen lifestyle and his comfortable home while the outside world demands removal. Sensing his chance to pursue the life of adventure his wife always dreamed of, Carl uses the force of balloons to lift his house out of the ground and into the sky, traveling to South America with hopes to land near the jungle stomping grounds of his boyhood hero, adventurer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). Accidently onboard the house during takeoff is young Russell (Jordan Nagal), a pudgy, devout Wilderness Explorer member hoping Carl could help with the achievement of his “Assist the Elderly” badge. Now stuck together in the sky, the odd couple must find common ground when they settle at their destination, finding a dog named Dug who can communicate through a special collar, an exotic female bird Russell names “Kevin,” and Muntz, who has sequestered himself inside a massive Zeppelin staffed by canines, hungry to prove his worth to a world that’s shunned his accomplishments.
Directed by Pete Docter (“Monster’s Inc.”) and Bob Peterson (who voices Dug and a villainous Doberman Pinscher named Alpha), “Up” is a motion picture that’s seemingly close to a cold death by asphyxiation just by the sheer measure of whimsy present in the screenplay and the juicy, vibrant animation. It’s a high-wire act for the filmmakers to create something meaningful out of particularly fussy raw materials such as epic balloon flight, talking dogs, and chatty chubby children. Yet they manage the impossible. Docter and Peterson achieve a purity of intention that’s jaw-dropping, ditching the weight of processed wit many Pixar productions feel obligated to engage to charge “Up” forward as an inspiring quest, underscored by crippling poignancy, especially in the brittle tale of Carl and his devotion to his deceased wife Ellie.
A brief backstory meant to form motivation for Carl’s unorthodox method of big city escape, the tale of Carl and Ellie is an authentically devastating recollection of love gained and cruelly lost to time, communicated brilliantly and wordlessly by the filmmakers, who use the gift of elegant CG animation and well-lubed Pixar character expression to lend the audience a sobering entry point to Carl’s stubborn psychology. It’s a simple sequence of exposition, but there’s something emotionally pure that Docter and Peterson unearth that’s unsettlingly fragile and stunning, displaying lifelong attachment in only a few sensational cinematic steps. It’s a tender sentiment that ripples throughout the entire picture, lasting as a long as it does through aching sincerity, not calculation. There are a few stirring beats that arrive during Ellie’s remembrance montage in “Up” that I’m sure surprised even the filmmakers.
I’d hate to make “Up” sound like dour calamity. The film is anything but depressing. Once in adventure mode flying high in the sky, the picture settles in with Carl and Russell, having tremendous fun with their differences in age and appetites for curiosity. Handsomely voiced by Asner and Nagal, the actors instill the characters with gracious levels of comedy and dramatic dimension, making it easier to buy the numerous jumps between slapstick and conflict that increase as the film moves along. While I found “Up” to be incredibly touching, there are oodles of comedy to be had throughout the picture (scored with tremendous orchestral zest by Michael Giacchino), embodied by Dug’s lovable pea-brained canine enthusiasm and Russell’s lovable pea-brained adolescent determination, both captured in puffy, charmingly exaggerated character designs.
In a microscopic way, “Up” does succumb to the rigid Pixar screenwriting template blues toward the opening of the third act, hatching a break-up-to-make-up scenario for Carl and Russell that feels alien to the momentum Docter and Peterson have tenaciously built. It’s a small objection within a film of enormous creative beauty and gorgeous cartoon buoyancy. “Up” underlines not only Pixar’s artistic dominance, but demonstrates a rarely observed portion of emotional sincerity that rushes through the system of this picture with a near angelic grace.