May 28, 2009

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Up (PG)
An old man and a little camper go on a South American adventure in Up, the enchanting new animated movie from Pixar.

In some ways, Up is actually the story of two little boys — Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai), a Wilderness Explorer who shows up at the door of an old man, and Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner), that old man who, as a little boy, thrilled to the tales of the explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) and his Spirit of Adventure dirigible. Little Carl (Jeremy Leary) wore a flight helmet and goggles as he zoomed around his neighborhood pretending to be heroic-looking Muntz. It was on one such outing that he ran in to another little adventurer, Ellie (Ellie Docter). Ellie, like Carl, wanted to follow Muntz to South America and the mysterious jungle featuring Paradise Falls. Chatterbox to Carl’s shyness, Ellie gets him to promise to go with her on the adventure.

As we see in a beautifully scored, essentially wordless montage, Ellie and Carl do take an adventure together — though it’s not to South America. They get married and set up house and eventually start to save for a South American trip. Life, of course, has a way of changing plans — a blown tire, a crushed roof and the South American trip always gets put off. Put off until it’s too late for Ellie and seemingly too late for Carl, who, as a grumpy old widower, spends his days complaining to himself from his porch about the construction going on around his house and trying to think up ways to get rid of Russell, the eager little scout looking to earn an “assisting the elderly” badge.
When it looks like Carl might have to leave the house he shared with Ellie and head to a retirement home, this former balloon salesman decides instead to fill his leftover inventory with helium, tie it to his house and take off. “So long, boys” he says merrily to the orderlies who had shown up to take him to Shady Whereever. He sighs happily as he settles in his chair and enjoys the peaceful ride south — peaceful until there’s a knock at the door and he finds a scared Russell on the porch.

Russell is something of a modern kid (though thankfully not in that snarky, slangy Dreamworks sense). He’s a bit chubby, he’s a bit lonely. He’s working hard to get the elderly-helping badge because it will complete his requirements to move up to the next level of Wilderness Explorers — and because the dad he seldom sees will be at the ceremony. He’s a city kid — a bit freaked out and tired when they finally land in the actual wilderness but quick to turn every animal he meets into a pet. He complains “my knee hurts” after hours of walking but is quick to take up the banner of adventure, particularly when friends are in danger.

He is, surprisingly, delightfully, a real-seeming kid and his relationship with Carl is really winning. It starts out with annoyance on Carl’s side but deepens in a nice, non-sitcomy way. While Up isn’t a nearly dialogue-free affair like WALL-E, it does have a relatively pared down number of characters and gives us time to get to know them all and to watch their interactions.

I feel like I could paste this next bit of commentary into any of review of the recent Pixar movies but Up is a true delight, a treat, for the way it entertains on all levels — offering emotional depth and richness for adults and an understandable story and fun characters for kids. It doesn’t exclude one group in an effort to entertain the other (like so many poop-joke-laced or pop culture-referencing cartoons do). Pixar movies and this movie in particular succeed by being fully realized stories — not a moment or a note in the score (and the score here is a sweet, fantasy-filled, charming thing) or a visual is wasted. (The movie is being released in 3-D, and while the 3-D doesn’t necessarily add anything it doesn’t take away from the truly beautiful animation and the expressive characters.) These movies enchant because they are about dreamers — dreamers whose dreams change and mature and end up more wonderful than when they started dreaming. And the movies unironically and wholeheartedly touch that same impulse in the audience. It is so rare that you get to enjoy a piece of entertainment (of any media) where the standard is so clearly perfection.

And, quibble about this or that if you want, but I think Up basically meets this standard. I think it will be even better the next time I see it. When I reviewed WALL-E a year ago, I gave it an A- because it didn’t quite leave me with the same sublime feeling as Ratatouille did. In retrospect, I should have given Ratatouille an A+ and WALL-E the A — it ages that well and keeps you thinking about it and rediscovering things you liked about it long after you’ve seen it. Up is in that category for me. It is that rare movie that can have you fighting back a lump in your throat even as you’re laughing. And even rarer — in this movie full of genuinely cute and clever plot points, one involving a pack of dogs and its leader, a stern and dangerous-looking villainous dog named Alpha, had me absolutely guffawing out loud, completely without realizing that I was doing it. Moments like these are a delight and help to remind me of why I like going to the movies in the first placec — at their best, movies can be so completely transporting.

Up might be a sweeter, more emotional movie than WALL-E but it pulls that off without sappiness, without leaving you feeling like you’re being used so the movie can score points. In any other movie, it might be way too much to have Russell, when he’s explaining to Carl about his dad and the one badge he needs to have the all-important ceremony, point to the empty space on his sash, the hole where this badge and his dad’s attention will go, seemingly very near his heart. In Up it seems just right. A

Rated PG for some peril and action. Directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson and written by Peterson, Up is an hour and 44 minutes long and is distributed by Buena Vista Pictures. It will open in wide release on Friday, May 29.