What is your life's greatest adventure?
Have you traveled the world? Accomplished greatness in your chosen field, perhaps? Maybe you have written a book, acted in a play, sang at the Kennedy Center or otherwise chased your dream?
Perhaps, your greatest adventure is simpler.
You worked hard your entire life, even if it seems you have little to show for it.
You fell in love, got married and raised a family.
Perhaps, there was never a family.
Perhaps, you never have gotten around to chasing your biggest dreams.
You settled, or so it seems.
You may have settled out of duty or necessity or unexpected contentment.
If this seems an odd way to start a film review for "Up," the latest animated feature from Disney/Pixar, then you're obviously not familiar with Pixar's cinematic history.
I can't really blame you.
After all, the film's trailer and much of the marketing campaign have painted "Up" as a wondrous film about a cranky old fart on a magical voyage with an energetic yet inexperienced young Boy Scout who unexpectedly joins him on the adventure.
"Up" is, indeed, a wondrous film.
Yet, it is so much more than is revealed in its trailer and marketing campaign.
"Up" is sweet and funny, captivating and intelligent.
"Up" is romantic.
Oh yes, I said romantic. The first 10 minutes of "Up" contain what may very well be the finest romance ever captured in an animated feature.
I was mesmerized.
I was moved...so moved.
I was misty-eyed and completely enthralled.
THAT was the first 10 minutes.
While this emotional center gave way to a slightly more traditional animated feature, this slowly evolving scene is constructed so magnificently that it builds a very human relationship with our two central characters, Carl Fredericksen (Ed Asner) and the young Russell (newcomer Jordan Nagai).
Regardless of how fantastic the rest of the film plays out, we've become so invested in the lives of Carl and Russell that we will, quite literally, follow them anywhere.
Thanks to Pixar, we do.
We are introduced to Carl as a young man (Jeremy Leary), a goggle-eyed adventurer enthralled by the larger than life adventures of Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). When the equally adventurous Ellie (Elie Docter) crosses his path, a friendship borne out of their common interest becomes a lifelong companionship through all the joys and sorrows life has to offer with one notable exception...Carl and Ellie never fulfill their lifelong promise of an adventure to the grand Paradise Falls.
Then, it is too late.
We have fastforwarded to an aging Carl, a crotchety old man facing the loss of his home and life in a retirement village.
Then, the adventure begins in one of the most magnificently realized scenes to unfold onscreen this year as Carl concocts a way to tie hundreds, maybe thousands of balloons to lift his house and try to fulfill his lifelong promise to his beloved Ellie.
Of course, Russell wasn't part of the picture.
The adventure that follows reveals one of Pixar Studio's major strengths in producing animated features...they trust their audiences to truly "get it." Seemingly regardless of who writes and directs, a Pixar film has become synonymous with filmmaking for children and families that doesn't insult children, doesn't believe that children must be constantly distracted and, perhaps most amazingly, trusts children and families to be able to understand the emotions and experiences of everyday life.
Along our journey we will encounter Kevin, the mysterious bird that sent Muntz to the area many years ago, and a remarkably trained pack of dogs led by Dug (Robert Peterson), who befriends Russell and Carl.
At a modest 89 minutes, "Up" is a rather short film for Pixar. Yet, once again, it is a perfect length. Co-directors Robert Peterson and Pete Docter don't pad the film with unnecessary dialogue, special effects or other distractions. They simply tell the story and we, in turn, watch it unfold naturally and beautifully.
While it may sound as if "Up" mires itself in dark human emotions and serious themes, rest assured that it is visually enchanting and often quite, quite funny. In particular, the characters of Kevin and Dug are arresting and joyous and their scenes together brought out the child within me.
The design of Paradise Falls, based upon the real life South American Angel Falls, is stunning and mesmerizing, while several of the scenes involving the airborne house are awesome and hypnotic whether you see "Up" in 2-D or 3-D. There are really no scenes that scream out "See me in 3-D," and "Up" is undoubtedly accessible to those unable to afford the extra few bucks to wear the glasses and get a few extra "Ahhhhs."
Voice work throughout the cast is flawless, with a particularly strong leading trio of Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer and newcomer Jordan Nagai providing performance that balance humanity and humor, emotional resonance and fantastic silliness. Tech credits are solid across the board, and Michael Giacchino's full-bodied yet never overwhelming original score is the perfect complement to the film's sweeping vistas blending with touching intimacy.
An emotional tour-de-force combined masterfully with dizzying imagery, heartfelt humor and rich, authentic dialogue, "Up" is an absolute triumph for Pixar once again.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic