It must be freeing to know that you have an audience before you even compose your first thought for a project. It’s a luxury very few people enjoy in the movie business, but an audience is a fait accompli for anyone working with the Pixar logo at the head of their credits. Pixar has the kind of track record that renders bad reviews all but moot, but they don’t take their good standing for granted. They work harder, as individuals and as a company, with each new picture so as not to betray the quality of what came before just to make a cheap buck. It’s the mouse that sells the toys.
Pixar has not failed that legacy with Up, Pete Docter’s daydream follow-up to his nightmare awakening of Monsters, Inc. It follows the story of Carl Fredricksen, a former balloon salesman turned elderly curmudgeon who is slowly being squeezed out of his home, his comfort and his life by a great villain called time.
On the eve of being evicted and sent to a nursing home, Carl does what any rational person would do: He turns his house into a zeppelin with thousands of helium-filled balloons and steers it towards South America, hoping to land on Paradise Falls, a mythic-yet-real spot in Venezuela. It’s the spot that he and his childhood sweetheart, Ellie, had always planned to visit together, but they ran out of time before they could get there. He is joined – accidentally, as it were – by Russell, a young Wilderness Explorer who is looking for the “Assisting the Elderly” badge to fill out his sash.
With WALL-E last year and now Up, Pixar has, oddly enough, grown up a little. It’s not because of the elderly characters or the lack of inanimate objects with speaking parts (animals still talk here, though not of their own accord); there’s a new layer of depth and emotional resonance. That could have been assumed to be a fluke in WALL-E, but not only weren’t these themes a fluke, they’re expanded upon in Up. Now we arethe characters, instead of wishing there were some way that the characters could really exist.
The old yarn that Pixar doesn’t really make kids’ movies has never been more true with Up, yet it’s also their most innocent since Toy Story. Though exploring new depths, they’ve not left the old adventure hat on the rack – the film is all but dedicated to the spirit of adventure. It’s the reason behind Carl and Ellie’s sweet, youthful romance, Carl’s regret in old age and even Russell’s childish naivete. Carl and Ellie’s childhood heroes were adventurers. Even the out-of-place moments (doggie planes?) and blunt conceits (the too-literal “life’s-weight-on-his-shoulders” metaphor) can be forgiven, as they perform dutifully in service to the kind of thrilling movie adventures we regular folks can only dream of, but which the wizards at Pixar perform with ease.