See a cantankerous old coot tie a bunch of balloons and fly away! Watch as this old timer is mercilessly henpecked by an overenthusiastic kid! Giggle at the talking dog! You might walk into Up expecting only these things, but what you will likely not expect is the emotional punch that it offers. This is a movie about dreams, and how the failure of those closely held dreams can lead to life’s greatest disappointments.
It’s easy to overlook the fact that this is the first Pixar film to feature humans as the main characters. Before, Pixar could dress up a social class metaphor by having the lower class be literally rats, as in Ratatouille. It allows for a comfortable feeling of distance, leading to an emotional impact that rarely penetrates beyond the surface. With Up’s human characters and despite the questionable physics of the flying house, never has an animated movie in recent memory been more grounded in the trajectories of everyday life.
Carl Frederickson is a man nearing the end of a life of modest accomplishments. Recently widowed, Carl’s deferment of childhood dreams of adventure has manifested itself as grouchy bitterness. At a crucial moment Carl strikes a construction worker, who has nearly destroyed something that is precious to Carl, with his cane. When the cane is pulled back, we expect a bruise, or perhaps a large lump. This is animated movie for kids, right? Instead, we see a gash, and blood.
Up does not shy away from consequence, and rarely pulls its emotional punches. Carl is not introduced as an elderly man, but instead as a young child, meeting his future wife, Ellie, over a shared admiration of adventurer Charles Muntz. This is followed by a wordless montage of Carl and Ellie’s life together, which manages to pack a lifetime into only a few short minutes. Expect to stifle a tear early. Despite Ellie’s short time on screen, her presence lingers.
Now, one might be skeptical that such emotional flourishes are appropriate for an animated film, but Pixar has proven that contemplative moments of characterization do not harm the silly fun. In fact, they enhance it. It evokes a genuine affection.
In 3D, the depth of composition is emphasized, with cheesy “hand moving towards your face” effects being eschewed. When Carl’s house finally arrives at its destination, the camera lingers on the landscape of Paradise Falls, letting its impact sink in, not through words, but through images. It is rare to see such assuredness in market-driven Hollywood cinema of sequels and remakes.
Even the talking dog gimmick, which could easily be imagined as disastrous, is handled adroitly with clever situations. How would a dog pour a bottle of champagne? It’s funnier than you think.
Up is not just a triumph of animated film; it is a triumph of filmmaking, period. Pixar proves again to be a studio at the peak of their creative powers.