As far as quality is concerned, Pixar no longer surprises me. Pixar making a film of undeniable excellence that will almost certainly land in my Top 10 of the year isn’t noteworthy. And yet every Pixar film manages to surprise me in the risks it takes, the characters they develop, and the feelings they inspire. “Up” is no exception to Pixar’s exceptional track record.
Since Pixar has gone out of its way to not reveal an important character in the story, I will honor their intent and simply say that 2009 may go down as the year when movies had us from the opening minutes. There was the opening credits of “Watchmen” and the first seven minutes of “The Brothers Bloom” but there’s absolutely nothing in recent memory that holds a candle to what “Up” does in its first twelve minutes. If you’re not on the verge of tears by the time the intro is finished, then there’s nothing on this Earth that will get to you. You are dead inside and all art would be wasted on you. I can’t stress enough how powerful and important that opening sequences is and it’s almost defiant, as if Pixar were screaming at us “Yeah, we can almost bring you to tears and do it almost entirely without dialogue. WE’RE JUST THAT GOOD.”
But “Up” doesn’t go downhill from its powerful opening. If anything, it soars (literally). What you’ve already seen from the previews is that elderly gentleman Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) has tied thousands of balloons to his home and is flying down to South America only to have an accidental co-passenger on board with Russell (Jordan Nagai), a Junior Wilderness Explorer, and ends up on a grand adventure.
“Adventure” is the key word here. “Up” is old-fashioned adventure as you’ve never seen it before. The folks at Pixar know all the standard adventure tropes, embrace those tropes, and then find a way to place their unique stamp on what you know and expect and transformed it all into something fresh and exciting. This is a film that had me either laughing hysterically, on the verge of tears, or on the edge of my seat and it transitions to all of these emotions seamlessly.
I know I shouldn’t be surprised at Pixar’s mastery of storytelling but their commitment to detail and never talking down to their audience is always worthy of acclaim. “Up” is a visually lush and kinetic film where you’re taken in by the varied South American landscape of “Paradise Falls” and the breathless battles between Carl’s humble floating house and various antagonists he and Russell encounter along the way. But it’s the little things like how they remembered to start putting stubble along Carl’s chin as his journey wore on or Michael Giacchino’s gorgeous score (between this and his work on “Star Trek”, he’s a composer that deserves to be recognized by the mainstream in a big way) that show why Pixar is at the cutting edge of filmmaking while other animation studios fall behind.
Too often has “family film” becomes synonymous with “lazy filmmaking” and Pixar deserves some kind of special honor for acknowledging that kids and their parents and all audiences deserve better than that. There could be so many dumb, easy jokes to make with a main character like Carl or the lovable dog Dug who appears later in the film (and almost steals it along with a gigantic bird named “Kevin”). Other filmmakers would stoop to making fart jokes with Carl or have Dug lick himself. Instead, Pixar finds what’s lovable about our concepts of the elderly or dumb dogs and embraces that for the humor and it works brilliantly. By working harder for the feel-good laugh, Pixar comes away with the memorable character instead of the cheap, easy-laugh and a film that you’ll forget five minutes after you’re done with it.
At this point, it’s pointless to compare “Up” against the nine other Pixar movies. They’re all great. Even “Cars”, which I would say is their weakest film, is better than most other family films. Greatness is greatness and the Pixar brand is as close as anything audiences have when it comes to a guaranteed great time at the movies. “Up” continues that tradition and flies far above not only most family films, but almost any film you’ll see this year.
Rating —– A