Depending on what you think of “Cars,” Pixar makes it either 9½ out of 10 or 10 for 10 with “Up,” a captivating odd-couple adventure that becomes funnier and more exciting as it flies along. Tale of an unlikely journey to uncharted geographic and emotional territory by an old codger and a young explorer could easily have been cloying, but instead proves disarming in its deep reserves of narrative imagination and surprise, as well as its poignant thematic balance of dreams deferred and dreams fulfilled. Lack of overtly fantastical elements might endow “Up” with a somewhat lower initial must-see factor than some summer releases. But like all of Pixar’s features, this one will enjoy a rewardingly long ride in all venues and formats. Pete Docter’s picture has the privilege of being the first animated film to open the Cannes Film Festival, on May 13.
The two leading men are 78 and 8 years old, and the age range of those who will appreciate the picture is even a bit wider than that. Like previous classic films about escape from the mundane, from “The Wizard of Oz” to “Wall-E” and many in between, “Up” is universal in its appeal. At the same time, it may be the most subtle Pixar production to date in its use of color schemes, shapes, proportions, scale, contrast and balance, factors highlighted by the application of 3-D, which will be available at many initial engagements.
The ghost of Chaplin hovered over “Wall-E,” and although “Up” is a more talkative film, it also delves back into earlier eras for inspiration. The first thing on view is a mock ’30s-style black-and-white Movietone newsreel documenting the exploits of maverick explorer Charles Muntz, who heads back to South America to redeem himself after a giant bird skeleton he presents in the U.S. is denounced as a fraud.
Not long after comes an exquisite interlude that, in less than five minutes, encapsulates the life-long love affair between Carl Fredericksen and his wife Ellie in a manner worthy of even the most poetic of silent-film directors. The two were brought together by their mutual enthusiasm for Muntz, and it remained Ellie’s lifelong dream to emulate the adventurer and travel to Paradise Falls in South America.
But life has other plans, and Ellie must settle for a happy life with balloon-seller Carl (voiced by Ed Asner). When she dies, she leaves behind a scrapbook as well as a very grumpy widower, who retreats into self-enforced exile. With heavy-rimmed black glasses, thick white hair and eyebrows, bulbous nose, square jaw and a scrunched body that looks like it’s been through a compactor, old Carl resembles a cross between Spencer Tracy and Walter Matthau at the ends of their careers. He wants no company, content to live out his days in the house he shared with Ellie, which becomes surrounded by giant construction projects.
Finally faced with eviction, Carl concocts a plan. In a surprising and brilliantly visual sequence, thousands of colored balloons hatch from behind the house, prying it from its foundation and carrying it skyward; Carl intends to fly it to South America, fulfilling Ellie’s dream.
However, he’s got an unplanned passenger in the form of Russell (Jordan Nagai), a roly-poly, eager-beaver Junior Wilderness Explorer who’s previously tried to enlist the old goat’s help to win him a badge. The trip goes uneventfully — no time wasted on navigational challenges — the better to quickly achieve the destination. The arrival is stunningly portrayed, with thick fog clearing to reveal bizarre rock formations atop a mesa adjacent to the falls (designs were inspired by Angel Falls, the world’s highest, and the actual tepui mountains around the juncture of Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana — the location of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World”). Carl and Russell quickly come upon the very sort of rare bird Muntz went back to find decades before, a brilliantly plumed, gawky 13-footer they name Kevin.
Kevin’s antics throughout are so humorous and beautifully animated they would be at home in a “Looney Tunes” highlights reel, as would a breed of attack dogs commanded by Muntz himself (Christopher Plummer), who sends the canines in search of the elusive bird.
At just 89 minutes, “Up” is unusually short for a Pixar film, and the action climax comes on rapidly. One setpiece features the two old-timers, Carl and the swashbuckling Muntz, going mano a mano aboard the latter’s spectacular, zeppelin-like flying ship, and numerous vertigo-producing shots show characters clinging for dear life.
Although the cliffhanger effects are augmented by 3-D projection, never do Docter (“Monsters, Inc.”) and co-director Bob Peterson shove anything in the viewer’s face just because of its 3-D potential. In fact, the film’s overall loveliness presents a conceivable argument in favor of seeing it in 2-D: Even with the strongest possible projector bulbs, the 3-D glasses reduce the image’s brightness by 20%. At the very least, the incentive for seeing “Up” in 3-D would seem less powerful than it is for other films.
Despite the sheer volume of incident and action required of any film that includes young kids as a major portion of its target audience, “Up” is an exceptionally refined picture; unlike so many animated films, it’s not all about sensory bombardment and volume. As Pixar’s process is increasingly analyzed, the more one appreciates the care that goes into the writing. The underlying carpentry here is so strong, it seems it would be hard to go too far wrong in the execution.
Unsurprisingly, no one puts a foot wrong here. Vocal performances, most importantly from Asner, Plummer and nonpro Nagai, exude a warm enthusiasm, and tech specifications could not be better. Michael Giacchino’s full-bodied, traditional score is superlative, developing beautiful themes as it sweeps the action along on emotional waves.