Well Pixar is certainly on a roll, isn't it?
The studio took a slight detour with 2006's strange "Cars" but with 2007's "Ratatouille," last year's "WALL-E," and now the delightful "Up" its movies have never been better. And the reasons for the studio's success could not be more evident.
"Up" begins with a sentimental celebration of the past that informs the style of the adventure to come. We begin in the ‘30s in an old movie theatre. A little boy with large, square glasses stares up at the newsreel on the screen, watching the adventure of his hero, famed explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer.) Young Carl Fredricksen (Edward Asner) longs for adventure and he finds it in an abandoned house that young Ellie, a talkative tomboy, has started using as a play fort. The two bond quickly. The film then fast forwards as we see the would-be explorers fall in love, get married, and grow old together. All the while they hold on to their dream of one day exploring South America like their hero.
But Ellie doesn't make it. She dies before they can follow their dream, leaving Carl old and alone in their home. Carl will honor Ellie's dream, though. Rather than retire to a nursing home, Carl -- who's been a balloon salesman all his life - unleashes thousands of balloons which lift his house up from the foundation. With some homemade sails his goal is to fly his house to Paradise Falls in South America to fulfill his childhood promise to Ellie.
It's not long after take-off, though, that Carl realizes he has an accidental stowaway: Russell, a good-natured child in a Wilderness Explorer outfit. The two will bond as they float into the South American jungle and encounter wild animals and an even wilder villain.
"Up" has all the hallmarks that have come to make Pixar such a reliable brand. First it has original characters. Carl, Ellie, Russell, and the other supporting characters and villains are fresh creations. They're not just shadows of whatever celebrity happens to be voicing them. Second, "Up" creates strong relationships between these creations. The love between Ellie and Carl is developed quickly but it's hard not to get emotional when Ellie passes away at the beginning of the film. The friendship between Carl and the boy Russell is also moving. Pixar always does this. They did it in "Ratatouille" between Remy and Alfredo, they did it in "WALL-E" with the title character and Eve, and of course they never did it better than with Woody and Buzz in the "Toy Story" films. And third, the picture stuns with its visuals. If "WALL-E" owned the stars and "Finding Nemo" the sea then "Up" clearly gives us the skies. The image of a house lifted up through the clouds on balloons is a liberating idea, made all the more exhilarating by seeing it on the big screen.
What makes "Up" different from its predecessors, though, is in the picture's old-fashioned sensibility. I'm hard-pressed to think of a more innocent, timeless, and thoroughly un-postmodern children's picture of recent times. There aren't pop culture references or double entendre winks to the adults. The only thing that even comes close is a nod to a classic painting. And the joke is so clever that I'll let it slide. "Up" is also a very simple, straightforward picture, taking as a model the adventure stories that it harkens to at the beginning.
Also like "WALL-E" and its predecessors "Up" is thematically substantive. The film deals with aging, friendship, and most importantly, the pursuit of our dreams. The film's protagonist and its villain are both pursuing their dreams in the South American jungle. However, one of them has grown so zealous in its pursuit that he's been driven into madness and paranoia.
With Pixar at the peak of it's game now seems as good a time as ever to return to the characters that started it all back in 1995. Coming in the summer of 2010 is "Toy Story 3." If Pixar's trend holds then we'll be in for a picture that far exceeds the films that came before it.
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