Escaping and hiding from the rest of the world. It is a desire that everyone feels at one point or another. In fact, it is actually becoming something of a daily ritual for me. Whether it is a remote part of the world or simply a faraway vacation spot, we all dream of the Great Escape from the drudgery of our everyday routine. Sadly for most of us, such a migration remains a reverie and nothing more; one that offers up a few tranquil moments of a mental exodus until reality comes crashing back in. That is, unless, you are retired 78-year old balloon salesman Carl Fredricksen.
In the delightful new Disney/Pixar animated comedy/adventure Up, the recently-widowed Fredricksen (looking like Spencer Tracy and voiced by Ed Asner) decides to finally fulfill the lifelong dream he and his late wife Ellie shared of exploring the world. On the day he is scheduled to be put in a retirement home by the courts following a mild altercation, Fredricksen escapes by tying thousands of balloons to his house and flying away to the wilds of South America, a destination that he and Ellie had always desired to go to but never got the chance.
Shortly after “liftoff,” Carl discovers that he is not alone on his expedition: an overly optimistic 8-year-old scout named Russell (Jordan Nagai) has unintentionally stowed away on Carl’s porch. Unable to turn the house back, the duo continue heading south and upon arrival discover become entangled in a decades-long game of cat and mouse. They meet the once-legendary explorer –and former childhood hero of Carl’s-Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). With his pack of “talking” dogs by his side, Muntz has been in exile for decades in South America hunting for a rare bird that Carl and Russell encountered and befriended upon arrival.
Up delivers everything we have come to expect from a Pixar Studios film. The story’s concept is both imaginative and cleverly executed; the animation, be it in Digital 3D (a first for the studio) or regular 2D projection, is breathtaking. The terrific vocal performances from Asner (welcome back, Lou Grant!), Nagai, Plummer and co-writer/director Petersen (as my new favorite Pixar character, Dug the Dog) help further bring the wonderfully realized characters to life.
While Up expectedly delivers plenty of laughs and adventure, the touching and often unexpectedly moving examination of lost dreams and letting go of your past in order to move on is what really sets this film apart from the Pixar pack. All of the studio’s films have heart and a certain level of emotional depth to them (yes, even Cars), but none reach the level Up does. Petersen and Pete Docter (Monsters Inc), the film’s other co-writer/director, do a fantastic job at setting up Carl’s back story via a touching and ultimately heartbreaking ten-minute opening (one backed by Michael Giacchino’s wonderful score). This quick, mostly wordless section that covers the lifelong relationship of Carl and Ellie may very well be the pinnacle of the company’s output thus far, covering more themes and conveying more genuine emotion than most live-action films do in two hours. And while the film does become a slightly conventional as it makes its way to the big action showdown, Petersen and Docter never lose sight of what really makes Up such a special experience: its humanity.
I thought it would be hard to top last year’s Wall-E, which became my pick for the best movie of 2008, but Pixar may have done it with Up. This is a smart, deeply affecting tale that speaks volumes while entertaining kids from 8 to 80. If you are like me and cannot make that Great Escape you find yourself dreaming about on a regular basis, try this film out as a 90-minute substitute. It is a trip (to the cinema) that will definitely send your spirits soaring… up.