- Russell and Carl, on a jungle adventure
Perhaps one day, Pixar -- the critically adored powerhouse in animated family movies -- will deliver a bomb, but not this summer. And if its latest feature, Up, isn't the genre-busting, jaw-droppingly wonderful movie that last season's soulful trash-compactor odyssey WALL*E was, then at least it's a whole lot better than Cars.
Up, directed by Peter Docter from a screenplay by Bob Peterson, is closer to The Incredibles: There's a relatively straightforward Point-A-to-Point-B plot; a larger narrative that's sure to resonate deeper for adults than children; and enough high-speed action and gags to keep the aforementioned kiddies amused.
Our hero is a cranky old man, Carl Fredrickson (voice of Ed Asner), whom we meet as a shy youngster, obsessed with exploring. His best pal is Ellie, who also dreams of faraway lands, and whose brio provides the perfect jolt to Carl's timidity. They marry, share a life, but never quite make it to their dream destination: Paradise Falls, in some vast, unexplored hinterland of South America.
Then Ellie dies, and their little funky house -- a memorial to their happy life together -- is threatened by eminent domain. Out of frustration, Carl rallies for a last bit of defiance: He attaches enough helium balloons to his house so that it floats away. But his going-out-in-a-blaze-of-glory act is compromised. First, he finds an accidental stowaway on board, and second, his house lands, in all places, near Paradise Falls.
His unexpected, unwanted guest is Russell (voice of Jordan Nagai), a rotund 9-year-old Wilderness Explorer, who had been door-knocking in pursuit of his last required merit badge -- assisting the elderly. Russell's a bit scattered, but full of enthusiasm, and soon the mismatched pair are deep in crazy adventures: moving the house closer to the falls (per Ellie's dream); fending off angry, talking dogs; helping a bizarre, beautiful bird; and uncovering a decades-old surprise deep in the jungle.
I don't have to tell you that along the way Russell and Carl learn things about themselves and each other, and grow to be true allies. And neither does Up: I always appreciate how Pixar delivers its lessons and themes without spelling them out (if only this restraint could spread to the rest of Disney's kid-vid house).
After all, we're functioning humans, not androids fresh out of the box. We only need to be gently reminded to be kind to kids, old people and dumb dogs; or that life's real value isn't always measured by obvious markers. In these perilous eco-times, Up even proffers a gentle, if timely reminder about preserving natural habitats, even over scientific discovery.
Even more important -- at least to those who plunk down their hard-earned quarters for a ticket -- is that Up is fun. It delivers that beloved Pixar combo platter: sweet, funny, slyly smarter than you'd expect and awesome to look at. (Even more so, if you catch this at a theater screening in 3-D. This new generation of 3-D is much improved in all cases, but the marriage of 3-D and digital animation is sublime: Never has unreality looked so real.)
While there's plenty of thrilling chase scenes, silly slapstick (much involving those wacky, mouthy dogs) and a dastardly villain straight out of Saturday-matinee serials, Up also has long stretches without any dialogue.
Sometimes the scenes let us drink in the gorgeous scenery, or the surreal nature of traveling via floating house. Other times, these sequences -- such as telescoping of Carl's life -- let us assemble the story from only the visuals, while perhaps adding our own internal commentary.
This is particularly effective in the film's early sequences where a number of poignant passages convey how grief, regret and physical infirmity have conspired to make Carl's twilight years into a bitter, lonely existence. If this is a little bit heart-breaking, then note that Up ultimately proves this condition is wholly reversible.
Older folks often take their grandkids to the movies, and as a reward for their kindness, most likely suffer through some shriek-filled, syrupy inanity, a dumbed-down 90-minute toy commercial. But Up, with its respectful affirmation that life should be seized at any age, even in the wake of profound sadness, is the rare film that kids should treat their grannies and grandpops to.
Starts Fri., May 29.