The central image in Pixar Animation's Up is of a house floating high in the sky, held aloft by thousands of rainbow-colored, helium-filled balloons. The image is arrestingly surreal, worthy of Bunuel or Dali, but it's bright and inviting and playful, too. You want to be in that house or at least to find out who lives there - and where, exactly, it's going.
Like the central conceits of Pixar's previous films (talking toys, a lonely robot, living cars, monsters in the closet), Up feels as if it sprang from the mind of a particularly imaginative kid. Then a masterful storyteller took over and gave the simple premise timeless, classic dimensions.
What ultimately matters most in Up is not how the floating house comes to be - or where it lands - but the man who inhabits it: 78-year-old Carl Fredericksen (voiced by Ed Asner), a lonely widower being forced out by developers who decides to rise above the fray, and take his house with him, in an act of wonderfully inspired defiance.
The real motivation for this daring act is not the sort of thing one normally encounters in cartoons aimed at family audiences. In a breathtaking, dialogue-free montage preceding liftoff, director Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.) encapsulates Carl's life in less than five minutes of screen time, showing how his childhood love for the exploits of globe-trotting explorer Charles Muntz led to a friendship with a spirited little girl named Ellie.
As they grew up, Carl and Ellie fell in love, got married, built their dream house, reeled from the discovery they couldn't have children, and planned to emulate their beloved hero Muntz and take an adventurous trip to Paradise Falls in South America. But the couple never got around to taking that trip, and Ellie died.
That montage, which is so funny and affecting and heartbreaking and true that it has you choking back tears before Up has barely gotten started, makes up Pixar's most mature and refined chunk of animation to date. It also grounds the fantastical, wondrous movie that follows it - the first Pixar film with a plain old human protagonist - with emotion and heart.
Like many classic cartoons, from Bambi to Snow White to Pixar's Wall-E, Up starts from a place of sadness and melancholy before soaring up, up and away. There would be no fun in revealing what Carl finds when he gets to Paradise Falls or the creatures he encounters there. Suffice to say the old crank has a stowaway - a motor-mouthed, irrepressible little boy (Jordan Nagai) hellbent on earning his "aiding the elderly" merit badge to complete his
Boy Scout Wilderness Explorer requirements.
Up also features talking dogs, although they are different from any talking dog ever to have graced a cartoon (you'll see), and there is an exotic, squawking bird as tall as an ostrich and as manic as Daffy Duck that merits a short film of its own. Even by Pixar's standards, the animation is absolutely stunning, with impossibly lifelike textures and vertiginous camera movements that accentuate the sense of flight and elevation (the film is being shown in 2-D and 3-D versions, both equally eyepopping).
In Paradise Falls, Carl finally finds the adventure he and Ellie had always dreamed about. Like all Pixar films (except Cars, natch), Up is rousing, exhilarating entertainment, but it also carries an inspiring and subtle message: You're never too old to start living. You just have to take that first daunting step and see what happens next.