Up, the tenth feature film by Pixar Animation Studios, is an impossible picture to pin down. It borrows liberally from our collective subconscious, not the least of which with its iconic image of the house floating through the air, carried by a massive swarm of balloons. It is a love story, a tragedy, a coming of age story and an adventure serial. It has talking animals, but it is not a talking animal picture. It is a children's film starting two old men (and a Wilderness Scout), told from an elderly perspective. It is joyous and melancholy, brazen yet at times incredibly subtle. Most of all, it is a celebration of living.
The film opens with a news reel about the great adventurer Charles F. Muntz, a heroic Charles Lindbergh-esque adventurer who returns to the jungles of Peru for proof of his disputed discovery. Inside a dilapidated old house on the way home with the name of Muntz's zeppelin scrawled on it, he meets Ellie. Another passionate Muntz fan, she is as talkative and outgoing as Carl is laconic and introverted. A beautifully rendered montage follows their life together, through all of the blissful small moments as well as a few cruel tragedies. It ends with Carl at Ellie's funeral, alone again.
To picture Carl Fredrickson as the film resumes, imagine Walter Matthau at the end of his career with hair just a shade darker than snow -- and then squash him to a third of his height. His personality is all Ed Asner, though: curt, growled opinions often hastily reconsidered. All of fire of Lou Grant, but with the additional gravel of an additional four decades of living. Unlike Asner's famous TV incarnation, Carl is as unabashedly sentimental anyone who says so little can be. Ellie was the light of his world, and his devotion to her is the guiding force of his life.
He is joined by Russell, an overly eager wilderness scout who floats away with Carl while searching for an animal under the old man's porch. He frustrates Carl, who seems him as both an obstacle to fulfilling a promise and as a symbol of the child he could not have. Russell has his own share of vulnerabilities, leaving himself emotionally exposed as only an innocent child can. Watching the two bond is one of the great pleasures of the film, as they slowly peel back the layers of each others' lives. Russell helps complete Carl's story, and Carl helps preserve Russell's innocence for just a little while longer.
They relationship grows over the course of a 1930's adventure yarn full of exotic jungles, mysterious creatures, a mustache-twirling villain and thrilling mid-air acrobatics. Though anchored by the poignant human developments, Pete Doctor's setpieces are arguably the broadest and most fantastic in Pixar's history. Only minor concessions are made to the rules of gravity and physics, with many moments that would be impossible even by standard action movie logic. Anyone who has a problem with it should remember they bought a ticket to a film with a house floating through the air on balloons on the poster.
Up aims for something unusual in for modern cinema, especially animated fare: it reflects on how time changes us and effects us, how we miss out on things we deeply desire and discover wonderful things we'd never have expected. It explores what it means to be old with a lifetime of experiences and relationships behind you, and from that perspective it witnesses youth with a lifetime of experiences and relationships yet to be had. It is a coming of age story for a man nearing the end of his life; a man who experienced the kind of love we all hope for faced with the opportunity of experiencing the kind of love he'd long since given up hope for. Despite occasionally going too far out on a limb, it stands as an instant classic.