There’s a thrill that comes to you about three quarters of the way
through a perfect movie. It’s an electric feeling, a tingling sensation
when you realize the movie’s not going to drop the ball. When you
realize you’re watching a masterpiece.
Pixar’s Up gives you that sensation about ten minutes in.
Even after feeling that sensation I was filled with doubt. Pixar is the
home to the best first acts in cinema. Bar none. No one else writes
screenplays that set up worlds so thoroughly, beautifully and
effortlessly. And many Pixar first acts feel daring; Wall*E‘s first act
is poised on the brink of purest perfection. But all too often Pixar
throws away those first acts on second and third acts that, while well
above average and quite excellent on their own terms, never quite live
up to the initial promise. Up doesn’t have that problem. From start to
finish Up is simply amazing.
But those first ten minutes. As great as the film is, it can’t live up
to the simplicity and dignity of those ten minutes. After a quick intro
where a goofy young kid named Carl, hopped up on adventure serials,
meets young Ellie, hopped up on adventure as well, the film traces
their life together. They get married, they buy a house, they find they
can’t have children, they work in the local zoo, they save for an
adventure vacation, they grow old and… finally Ellie dies. The
sequence is silent, done in pure visual storytelling. It’s brilliant
and touching and heartbreaking and just perfect. Having seen this
opening twice I feel it’s possible I’ve seen the single best example of
cinematic storytelling in history.
That’s huge praise, I know. And it’s coming from a guy who isn’t into
cartoons and who thinks most of Pixar’s output is really nice but not
worth revisiting. Up, though, is on another level. It is, indisputibly,
a masterpiece, and probably the best animated feature ever made.
With Ellie gone, Carl gets grumpy. The film executes a deft and tricky
tonal trick here, switching from something that makes you cry (and yes,
I did cry at that opening ten minutes) to something lighter and with
more laughs. The dream house that Carl and Ellie built is now impeding
progress, as every lot around them is being turned into a high rise
something or other. A sunglassed douche in a suit is trying to buy
Carl’s house, but he won’t have it. When elements conspire to force
Carl out the former helium balloon salesman takes the only reasonable
course of action: he ties thousands of balloons to his home and sails
it away. Destination: South America, and specifically a valley lost in
time that he and Ellie always wanted to visit. Long ago their favorite
adventurer and aeronaut, Charles Muntz, disappeared in this shadowy
valley. Ellie always had a dream of living there, alongside a giant
Carl’s journey is hampered by the fact that he accidentally brought
along Russell, a bright but oblivious and almost annoyingly upbeat
Wilderness Explorer kid. While Carl initially bristles at the kid – and
at the giant, prehistoric bird they find in the lost valley, as well as
the sweet-natured but dumb talking dog, Dug, who they encounter along
the way – you can imagine where all of this ends up.
What makes Up so magical is that it takes the melancholy and sweetness
of that opening and weaves it throughout the movie. The film eventually
turns into high adventure, complete with dogfighting (literally)
airplanes and last second escapes and sword fights, but it never loses
sight of the characters and their emotions. And the movie never
confuses explosions and action with actual awe; when Carl initially
unfurls his balloons its a scene of almost poetic beauty as the
surrounding area is transformed by the light of the sun playing through
the colored rubber. It’s a moment that perfectly encapsulates the way
unexpected art touches our lives; the film lingers on people astounded
by the floating house and I was reminded of Man on Wire in the way
Phillip Petite’s stunt touched New Yorkers on their morning commute.
The unexpected occurs, and we are changed.
Director Pete Docter keeps the balls of adventure and character in the
air at all times; action scenes are informed by the characters and not
by the need to keep things simply moving. And Docter goes back to the
kinds of films that young Carl would have enjoyed for his action cues.
The entire movie feels like a throwback to a 1930s adventure serial, or
a 50s adventure epic like Gunga Din. Big, wild and imaginative but
never losing sight of the humanity within.
Carl, voiced by Ed Asner, is probably my favorite Pixar character yet.
Irascible but not in a cliched way, Carl’s journey from grumpy old man
to sweet geezer is real, probably because the movie takes the time to
let us know who he was before becoming grumpy. Russell gets right right
up to the edge of being annoying, but young actor Jordan Nagai and the
Pixar team keep him just this side of palatable, mainly through humor.
Up is a very, very funny movie, and it finds its humor realistically in
In character! It’s the watchword for Pixar always, but never before has
it been so true. The characters breathe and live, even the silly huge
bird Kevin (prepare to buy your children Kevin toys out the wazoo) and
the once-heroic, now-villainous Muntz. The attention to character plays
out in attention to detail; you never feel like any sequence is
reverse-engineered from a starting point of ‘wouldn’t it be cool’
(although considering the level of coolness in the final aerial battle,
I have to assume some of this had to take place), but rather that
everything grows organically from what came before and who these
characters are. It’s wonderful to sit in a theater and be swept away by
a story without first being required to check your brain at the door.
I loved Up. Unabashedly and thoroughly loved this movie, was moved by
it, was thrilled by it, was entertained by it, was excited by it. And
the film is so low-key, so matter of fact about its sheer excellence
you’ll walk out of the theater thinking this is how all movies should
be, and how they should make you feel.