The previews for “Up” have made it seem like a simple tale of an old man (Ed Asner) and a young boy scout (Jordan Nagai) heading on a fun-filled adventure in a house carried by balloons to South America. Believe me, the story runs way deeper than that.
“Up” begins in what can be assumed is sometime in the 1920s or 30s with a “News on the March” type reel, very similar to the opening minutes of “Citizen Kane.” It is footage of a daring explorer (Christopher Plummer) who discovered a place in South America called Paradise Falls (which highly resembles Angel Falls in Venezuela). He was never seen again.
The young boy we see watching this movie is Carl (Asner). After seeing it, he meets an equally adventurous girl whom he later marries. They live, like in any fairy tale, happily ever after.
However, “Up” is no ordinary fairy tale. And if it is, it is one grounded more in reality than magic. As they age, Carl’s wife gets sick and passes. He is left totally alone as the area surrounding his quaint home is turned into a new building complex.
In his mourning, Carl realizes he doesn’t have much left in the States and should therefore complete the journey to Paradise Falls that him and his wife always hoped to do. He attaches thousands of baloons to his roof, and with the help of boy scout Russell (Nagai), heads off to Paradise Falls.
I will not reveal the rest of the plot from here, so as not to give away the real magic of the movie. What really needs to be discussed is everything that makes “Up” so masterful.
Of all the Pixar films, “Up” may be the darkest and most intense. It deals with matters of life and death, ultimate greed, love, and the meaning of youth and age. These dark themes are not the ones you’d expect out of a kids movie, and something you probably won’t see in “Ice Age 3.” But this is the thing that makes “Up,” and nearly every other Pixar movie so great: it’s a movie made for kids that can be enjoyed by people of all ages. “Up” is an adventure made for kids constructed by someone with the wisdom and experience of both age and childhood.
One of the things that makes “Up” so masterful is simply the way it’s shot. One of the final shots of the house, balloons and all, as it descends through the clouds and eventually disappears into oblivion is stunning, the kind of the thing that even great CGI couldn’t produce.
“Up” differs from Pixar’s other fare because it is one of their only films in which it is told from a human point of view. “Up” proves that the studio can tell a human story just as well as a story of a toy, robot, or mouse.
While in most of Pixar’s films humans are nothing but caricatures, “Up” allows them to come to life. Each character has their own dark side and motivation behind each of their actions. Just to prove how much they care about their characters, directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson pay attention to every tiny detail, down to each facial hair and red cheek, with stunning perfection.
Of course, “Up” doesn’t fail to give voice to those who usually have none. The story includes a pack of talking dogs who provide a large amount of the film’s comic relief. They are not as wise as the rats of “Ratatouille,” but they say exactly what you’d expect a dog to say if it could talk. Another of the plot’s human-like non-human characters is a beautiful bird who becomes a key part of the story.
“Up” represents another turning point for Pixar. As last year’s “Wall-E” proved, Pixar represents a band of filmmakers who have no problem straying away from the usual fare studios think a child enjoys. They understand films are not just about entertaining, but teaching; they open the door to magical new worlds while still keeping the door to reality open. “Up” perhaps carries a very anti-consumerism/materialism message that is much more subtle than that in “Wall-E.”
Despite the newfound maturity, “Up” still contains the one theme essential to every Pixar film since “Toy Story”: that a friendship can flourish between any two people (or things), no matter how different they may be.
Many elements of “Up” may seem implausible, but these small things are totally forgivable in such an awe-inspiring movie. “Up” simply asks the audience to forget reality for two hours and focus on this sublime fantasy. It is not just a sublime fantasy, but a “real” fantasy; the kind of real fantasy that contains realistic people going through realistic struggle in a world where anything can happen. This is without a doubt one of the best films of 2009.