‘UP’: a rollicking adventure with heart
By Christopher Kelly
McClatchy Newspapers
As ambitious and strange as its title is simple, “Up” tells the story of Carl Fredricksen (voice by Ed Asner), a curmudgeonly widower who, thus far, has refused to sell his house to a construction firm that has turned his once-charming neighborhood into a slick and soulless development.
Still reeling from the death of his beloved Ellie, Carl decides to tie thousands of helium-filled balloons to his house and create a kind of makeshift hot-air balloon that will take him to South America — the place where, for many decades, he had hoped to travel with Ellie. The plan works but for the emergence of young Russell (voice by Jordan Nagai), an 8-year-old boy, who just so happens to be on the front porch when Carl’s house goes lurching into the sky.
Placing a depressed septuagenarian at the center of a children’s film is its own kind of eccentricity — though we’ve come to expect nothing less from the extraordinary Pixar Animation Studios, which in recent years has served up portraits of post-apocalyptic despair (“Wall-E”) and gourmand rodents (“Ratatouille”).
The real surprise of “Up,” directed by Pete Doctor and Bob Peterson from a screenplay by Peterson, is the boldness of the storytelling and the unexpected depth of the emotions. A miscarriage, a terminal illness, a young boy’s inability to connect with his father — it’s all touched upon here with a grace and delicacy that pays the audience a tremendous compliment. This is a children’s film that refuses to condescend to anyone.
Like so many of Pixar’s features, it’s also a singularly imagined visual experience, a movie in which each lovingly crafted frame enriches the themes and feelings. Initially rendered in bright candy colors — an explosion of Skittles-shaded balloons set against a dreamy blue sky — the color palette turns more lush and saturated as Carl and Russell float their way to the mountains of South America, where they meet a giant squawking bird trying to protect its babies. (A side note: The press screening I attended was in traditional 2-D, so I only imagine how much more eye-popping the experience is in 3-D.)
At every turn, “Up” keeps subverting expectations and creating its own rules. Carl’s quixotic mission, to settle the house on a cliff as a tribute to Ellie, brings to mind the perverse drama of Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo,” about a guy trying to build an opera house in the Peruvian jungle.
But “Up” never tips over into pretentious or art-house fussiness — two criticisms much more readily lodged at “Wall-E,” with its nearly silent opening 40 minutes and mile-a-minute references to “2001.” This new film, instead, strikes just the right balance between the thoughtful and the raucous, the intelligent and the playful, perhaps because the filmmakers never lose sight of the emotional journeys of their beautifully rendered main characters.
Carl turns out to be a man who has allowed everyday regrets to blind him to the true adventure that was (and still is) his life. Russell, on the other stand, is all spirit and derring-do — but sorely lacking an adult influence who can encourage his wildest dreams. One of the main dialogue exchanges between the two of them — a gentle ode to how the “boring parts” of life are sometimes the most memorable — is pretty much guaranteed to bring you to tears.
When I first saw “Up” in mid-April, I questioned whether the main villain (voice by Christopher Plummer) and his pack of talking animals (voices by Delroy Lindo, Jerome Ranft and Josh Colley) were a little too obvious – a sop to the littlest kids in the crowd who need a snarling bad guy and few talking animals to divert them.
But as I’ve turned the movie over in my head, even these more conventional elements of the film seem all of a piece. Like Pixar’s greatest works – and I wouldn’t hesitate to rank this one right alongside “Finding Nemo” and the original “Toy Story” — “Up” draws on both old-fashioned traditions and newly invented ones: It’s a rollicking “Indiana Jones”-style explorer adventure with the heart and anguish of an Ingmar Bergman chamber drama.
You’ve never seen anything like it, and pretty much the instant it’s over, you will want to see it again.
Film focus
RATING: 5 out of 5 stars
VOICES: Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer
RATED: PG (some peril and action)
RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes

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