Film Review: Up

Pixar’s high-flying 3D adventure of an aged widower and his eight-year-old accidental stowaway is a constant delight. Word of mouth should soar.

It’s good to be alive in the age of Pixar. Following their masterful, universally acclaimed sci-fi romance Wall-E, the pioneering computer-animation studio triumphs yet again with Up, their tenth feature and the first to screen in 3D. Like their other films, Up boasts a highly original, lovingly crafted screenplay, with subject matter that might seem a dubious bet until you see what’s been rendered on-screen.

In this instance, the focus is on Carl Fredricksen, a 78-year-old grump who would appear the least likely protagonist for an animated family film. But director Pete Docter and co-director Bob Peterson (who also share screenplay credit) immediately disarm us by chronicling Carl’s life story from boyhood to old age in a funny and poignant series of vignettes that show his first meeting with Ellie, the spirited tomboy next door (voiced by Elie Docter, the director’s daughter), their courtship and marriage, and—in a startlingly somber turn—her illness and off-screen death. Carl and Ellie, adventurers at heart, had always dreamed of an expedition to “Paradise Falls” in South America, but financial imperatives forever got in the way of fulfilling their goal.

The present-day action begins in earnest when Carl, stubbornly refusing to move as urban development surrounds him, assaults one of the construction workers treading on his property and is evicted from the house he shared with Ellie. But rather than go quietly, Carl, a retired balloon salesman, attaches thousands of giant balloons to the house and breaks off into the stratosphere. The only unforeseen complication: Russell, an overeager eight-year-old Wilderness Explorer looking to earn his “senior assistance” badge, who just happened to be on the premises when the house took flight.

Carl and Russell survive a tumultuous storm and find their way to the remote terrain near the breathtaking Paradise Falls, with its dramatic rock formations and lush jungles. There, with the house still hovering overhead, young Russell befriends a rare creature, a 13-foot-tall, multicolored flightless bird the boy dubs “Kevin.” Before long, the visitors learn that Kevin is the elusive prey of Charles Muntz, the disgraced world traveler who was Carl’s childhood hero and now commandeers a massive airship and a huge pack of hunting dogs equipped with high-tech collars that turn their thoughts into human speech. As Muntz shows his true, dark colors, Carl and Russell’s adventure becomes a frenetic fight for survival.

Up is constantly surprising you, from its unexpectedly sweet and gentle opening portrait of a marriage, to the awesome sight of Carl’s house flying over the city, to the surreal image of boy and man lugging the structure through the jungle, accompanied by that zany giant bird. Unlike so many of today’s filmmakers, Docter isn’t afraid of quiet passages; the comic timing is perfect as Carl settles into his easy chair and sits contentedly before hearing a knock at the door of his airborne house. Then, in the second half, the film delivers breathless, beautifully choreographed chases and confrontations that transform the bone-weary Carl into the most improbable of action heroes.

The production design is as gorgeous as anything in the Pixar canon (which is high praise indeed), and the 3D is there to amplify depth rather than to show off flashy effects. The boxy design of Carl is well-matched with the gruff comic talents of Ed Asner, and young Jordan Nagai is a delight, funny and utterly natural, as the overweight, endlessly curious and borderline-annoying Russell. In a Pixar tradition, co-director Peterson nearly steals the show as the voice of both a friend-craving dog named Dug and the vicious Doberman Alpha, whose defective collar has burdened him with an embarrassing, high-pitched register. And Michael Giacchino, the virtuosic composer for Pixar’s The Incredibles and Ratatouille and J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek and “Lost,” excels with one of his richest and most buoyant scores.

Cast aside any doubts that audiences will embrace an animated feature with a septuagenarian lead. Box-office prospects for Pixar’s latest are definitely looking up.