What has always amazed me about the combined output of Pixar Animation is not just the consistent quality of the storytelling, but how different each film is from all the others. The Incredibles was as little like Cars as it was different from WALL-E. Disney’s traditional animation since The Little Mermaid, while often highly accomplished, has a certain sameness to it. With the exception of The Lion King, every film in that canon seems to have a heroine that resembles Belle from Beauty and the Beast.
Up continues Pixar’s proud tradition of breaking its own mold with a charming film that takes a touching story of an old man’s promise to his late wife and effortlessly combines it with a giddy child’s fantasy. The film’s opening tracks the story of its protagonist, ballon vendor Carl (Edward Asner), as he meets his future wife, Ellie, as a child, grows up, falls in love, and gets married. The couple share a dream of exotic travel and an admiration for a famous explorer, Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), who disappeared trying to prove his most famous fossil discovery wasn’t a fraud.
The couple’s dreams are put on hold when real life gets in the way, and Ellie dies without having children or getting to travel to the exotic places they dreamed of visiting. Widower Carl is a curmudgeonly recluse fending off attempts at eviction and the unwanted efforts of an eager young Wilderness Scout, Russell (Jordan Nagai), who is determined to earn his merit badge for helping the elderly, whether Carl likes it or not.
When Carl is finally forced from the home he shared with Ellie, his revenge is to take his entire inventory of helium and balloons and turn the house into a dirigible, floating it off its foundation and heading off toward South America. To his dismay, he finds that Russell was on his front step at the time and is now an unwitting passenger.
They land in a place called Paradise Falls, which is where Charles Muntz supposedly disappeared. To their surprise, they find that Muntz’s famous fossils were not only real, but they are still very much alive, in the form of a giant flightless bird that Russell names Kevin for reasons that make perfect sense to a boy his age.
Another shock for Carl is a face-to-face meeting with his boyhood hero. Charles Muntz is very much alive, very old and living on a dirigible of his own with a pack of dogs, all equipped with collars that translate every canine thought into spoken English.
Everything about Up goes far beyond what we’re programmed to expect from an animated movie. The time the film takes to tell Carl and Ellie’s story grounds the film in a human reality that is touching in the way it balances the sad with the heartwarming. The bonding between Carl and Russell, while comic and sometimes slapstick, is sharpened by hints that the boy’s home life is not perfect and he might be latching onto Carl as a substitute for an absent father.
In much the same way that The Incredibles contrasted the superhero exploits with the believable family dynamic, Up lures us into its fantasy world with fleshed-out characters who seem almost like old friends by the time the end credits roll.