Movie review by Greg Carlson
Nowhere near as good as several earlier Pixar efforts, “Up” still manages to engineer breathtaking technical moviemaking, personal flourishes, and (less attractively) a nose for commercial prospects in its archetypal story of loss, hope, and renewal. Like immediate predecessor “WALL-E,” the movie’s first third is easily its strongest, and the “anything goes” aspects of its South America-set center section trade a share of logic for unbridled action that will please the younger members of the audience. The movie can be as uplifting as its title, but it also manages to jerk some tears along the way.
Crotchety, mailbox-shaped Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) is an elderly widower who takes his entire house to the skies just as he is about to be carted off to a retirement home. Propelled by hundreds of colorful, helium-filled balloons, Carl’s rather unusual gesture is complicated by Russell (Jordan Nagai), an accidental stowaway. It’s a foregone conclusion that the two unlikely traveling companions will learn a lot from one another, but directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson have a talent for purely visual storytelling, and they mostly keep the sentimentality in check. The prologue that shows the course of Carl’s life prior to the principal action of the movie is rendered with the same kind of powerful emotional impact communicated by the “When She Loved Me” sequence in “Toy Story 2.”
Like every Pixar movie, “Up” salutes numerous examples of classic cinema with differing degrees of success. “Citizen Kane,” “King Kong,” “Star Wars,” and the 1925 version of “The Lost World” are among the references, some of which are subtle while others are played for obvious laughs. Despite existing in a world of magical realism, the movie worms its way around the conceit of cute talking animals by concocting a literal device that bestows speech to an army of dogs. Most of the silly stuff, such as canine-piloted biplanes, is merely a distraction from the finer elements of the story, which explore Carl’s grief.
The most charming things about “Up” include Pixar’s meticulous attention to story detail and nuance. Much of the character design, from Carl’s stony squint to the iridescently plumed Kevin’s squawk to canine Dug’s unconditional affection, telegraphs reserves of inner life. Even better than the running “Squirrel!” gag is the manner of Dug’s earnest simplemindedness. His sincere “I have just met you and I love you” is an accurate a distillation of every friendly puppy’s demeanor, and young and young at heart will love him right back. Precocious Junior Wilderness Explorer Russell contains more recognizably human grit and determination than meets the eye, but the same cannot be said for the movie’s odd antagonist, the Kirk Douglas-esque Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer).
Considering how carefully Pixar massages the story during the preproduction process, it is somewhat odd that the villainous Muntz is the weakest of the major characters in the movie. Introduced in a clever Movietone-style newsreel at the beginning of the movie, the once great Muntz should have been rendered with the same range of complexities as Carl, but instead functions as a single-minded, deranged lunatic who attempts to let an 8-year-old plummet to his death from an airborne zeppelin. That Muntz distracts from the personal odyssey of Carl never overwhelms the movie’s smaller joys, but the antics of the swashbuckling old rogue do prevent “Up” from achieving real greatness. Despite its flaws, however, “Up” follows the dictum that even less-than-perfect Pixar is still better than most everything else in sight.
This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 6/1/09.