Pixar’s new film Up is terrific.
The journey of retiree and widower Carl Fredrickson (voice of Ed Asner) to South America in a house lifted by thousands of balloons is an utterly ridiculous premise, and it gets sillier as it goes on, with a nonogenarian explorer, dragging the floating house several miles atop a butte, talking dogs and fantastic animals. And yet the whole thing works on its own terms, as it’s really about Carl’s personal journey to find a way to keep going after the death of his wife.
There are two tear-jerker montages which certainly do their jobs: The much-heralded opening sequence in which we see how Carl became the grumpy old man he is, and a later sequence in which he reminisces on his life from a different perspective. In a way they show how two views of a person’s life can say very different things about that person: In Carl’s case, either that he should have seized the day before it was too late, or that he had a wonderful life that he shouldn’t regret. But the story is about Carl making his way from here to there in his head.
But it’s the exuberant characters that carry the day: Russell, the young wilderness explorer (Jordan Nagai) who stows away on Carl’s house, and Dug (Bob Peterson), the talking dog who tags along when he meets the pair, eventually turning on his master, the adventurer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). Dug is especially hilarious, and quotable (“Hi there!”).
If the film has a weak spot, it’s the obsessive villainy of Muntz, who makes an effective heavy, but not a terribly convincing one: While his motivation (chasing after a fantastic animal for decades and not letting anything get in his way) makes a certain gut-level sense, I wondered why he didn’t try to “catch more flies with honey”, as they say. But given how much suspension of disbelief the story asks for just by its nature, a little bit of character motivation is easy enough to overlook.
I think Up is the film that The Incredibles wanted to be: This film’s epiphany works better than that one does, and it feels more true to itself, not tied up in trying to be a superhero film (with a poor understanding of superheroes), a family drama, and a spy adventure all in one. Up is is much more focused on its main character and story, and the whole thing works much better.
Is it Pixar’s best film? It’s hard to pick just one, since they’ve made so many good ones. WALL-E may have been more inventive, but it stumbled in the premise of its second half. Up is more consistent and overall works better. I’ve watched WALL-E, Cars and Finding Nemo many times now; I hope Up holds up as well in repeat viewings.