Pixar is so good it’s unfair. The studio has put out some of the most imaginative, funny, exciting, emotionally resonant and luminous looking tales in animation, perhaps matched only in consistency by Studio Ghibli. What’s even more amazing is that arguments for the best Pixar film tend to focus on the group that came out one after the other, starting with Ratatouille in 2007 and ending with Toy Story 3 in 2010. But I’d accept any argument in favor of 2009’s Up.
Up sets a high level of difficulty for itself. It’s an adventure story channeling the unapologetic gumption of films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, yet is anchored by the geriatric curmudgeon Carl and bumbling boy scout (excuse me, wilderness explorer) Russell. Its villain is a centenarian, the long exiled Charles Muntz, whose ruthlessness in tracking down a mythical bird the science community claimed he made up is matched only by the ingenuity of his henchmen dogs. Carl and Russell encounter said bird, a mother named Kevin, as well as Dug, an outcast from Muntz’s pack with a talking collar, and they pack the film with fantastic elements in a world already filled with a house turned into a giant dirigible that successfully sailed to South America. There’s a lot going on, and any one piece could bog Up down. But the film soars.
The fantasy elements of Up – Kevin and the balloon-powered flying house – are imaginatively written and beautifully rendered, of course; but for my money Up is its opening sequence, an assured, breathtaking introduction that begins the day Carl and Ellie first meet as children. Ellie is the more adventurous of the two, using a vacant house as her adventurers’ clubhouse; when Carl stumbles in, she promptly inducts him and plots for the two of them to fly to South America. As she jumps out of his window that night, she enthuses, “I like you, kid!” Next thing, of course, they’re married. The opening winds through a montage, with only Michael Giacchino’s sweetly plaintive score for sound, of their entire life together. Little touches – like how Ellie’s hair is always pulled up, making the moment the two discover they cannot have children a gut-punch: the visual of her sitting on their lawn (they’ve turned their old clubhouse into their home a la It’s A Wonderful Life), her hair down, blowing listlessly in a breeze – make this gorgeous, economical, visual storytelling at its best.
The story of rainbow birds and dogs who know great squirrel jokes (for the inspired dog dialog, Pete Doctor and Bob Petersen deserve…wait for it…a big treat), though, takes place after Ellie’s death. Carl’s become a bitter loner without her, and, about to be shuttered away the Shady Oak retirement center (ick), he instead decides to uproot his house, taking it, and symbolically Ellie, to the place she always wanted to go: Paradise Falls. He does so in spectacular style. The house’s flight sequences are fluid and effortless, and the balloon physics have an oddly bewitching realism. The landscapes of Paradise Falls have only recently been surpassed in beauty by Brave’s Scotland. Unfortunately for Carl, he doesn’t realize Russell has tagged along on his very solitary quest to do right by Ellie. The second act, which consists of the two’s unlikely partnership to move the house, still floating, to the perfect spot beside Paradise Falls, is quickly interrupted by Kevin and Dug and Muntz’s shenanigans. As each complication erupts, the house drifts closer to the ground.
If Up has a fault (it doesn’t), it is that there’s an awful lot going on, but almost everything is fairly uncomplicated. Russell’s journey from a big-hearted boy yearning to be loved to a big-hearted wilderness explorer whose love for adventure endears him to others is predictable but well encapsulated visually. While the film could have been a nuanced musing on aging, Carl is as spry or comedically frail as the film requires – it’s hard to buy the same man who needs a stairchair can control the ropes steering his house-ship. Muntz tries to kill Kevin. Guess how that goes. The visual novelty of balloon-based sky travel, a half-toucan, half-roadrunner, and the humor of talking dogs are enough to make the film cleverly charming, but nothing more.
What elevates Up, and all Pixar movies, is a willingness to creatively confront a very old problem: loss. Carl’s spirit of adventure was never a mega-zeppelin (of the same name) or an exotic jungle or a balloon: it was Ellie. Voiced brilliant by Ed Asner, Carl’s journey is one of rediscovering that friendship and love are what give his world color and make life an adventure. If this is the moral of every Pixar film, Up is simultaneously one of the more tender and liveliest iterations of it.
If you’re unsure whether a new acquaintance is actually a robot, showing them the opening sequence of Up would be a great way to tell. If they don’t react: probably an android, with sinister intent.
Take a Sip: whenever a balloon pops.
Take a Drink: any time the word ‘adventure’ is either spoken or appears onscreen.
Take a Drink: whenever Carl’s walker is unexpectedly useful.
Take a Drink: any time the frame is bathed in a warm magenta glow that melts your heart because Ellie.
Do a Shot: when SQUIRREL!