The work of PIXAR is held in such high standing that any hint of criticism runs the risk of seemingly deliberately contrary or obtuse. While we may be fans of PIXAR's output, and wish the films and their creators nothing but success, it is always dangerous to presume that their latest offering will be a masterpiece by way of association - a point which I fleshed out in my review of Ratatouille not so long ago.
Viewed in cold and clinical terms, Up doesn't come close to challenging the likes of Toy Story or Finding Nemo for the jewel in PIXAR's crown. Its relatively simple plot and increasingly goofy tendencies prevent it from achieving the same level of universal appeal. But there is enough enjoyment and emotional attachment which the film brings to prevent it from being seen in such clinical terms, even by the cynical hyenas patiently waiting for PIXAR to drop the ball, or let go of the balloon.
When WALL-E was released in 2008, many critics commented on the film's opening 20 minutes being of a different and perhaps superior tone to the rest of the film. The opening act, featuring WALL-E roaming the abandoned Earth, is effectively an animated retuning of Silent Running which uses the language of silent cinema to great effect. Similarly, many critics who saw Up were impressed with the opening montage but relatively underwhelmed by what followed.
Regardless of what follows it, the opening of Up is brilliant. Like WALL-E it has its roots in silent film, insofar as it employs physical gesture and the shapes of the characters to convey a narrative. It is so effective in doing this that we can move through a lifetime in a matter of minutes, feeling as though we know every foible and memory that these characters have developed and shared together. The recurring images of jars being broken, stumbling up hills and balloons floating provide both poignancy and continuity. We go through a whole gamut of emotions, ending up with a teary eye and a broken heart.
Up is a relatively mature children's film, insofar as it deals with the disappointment that results from our high expectations of life. We see Carl coming to terms with the death of his wife and recognising that his life hasn't turned out the way he planned. There never was a great adventure to South America, and many of their smaller aspirations (such as having children) never materialised. This disappointment is also present in the character of Charles Muntz, played by Christopher Plummer. There is something of a Heart of Darkness quality to Carl's discovery of his boyhood hero: both Muntz and Kurtz have reputations which were near-perfect, before disappearing after a tarnishing mistake.
But while the film accepts that such disappointments will inevitably come our way, the message of Up is that we should not lose the spirit of adventure or the passions that gave us our ambitions in the first place. There is a touching bitter-sweetness to the film which comes out in the moments of recognition on the part of Carl, the most touching being the discovery of Ellie's message in the back of her adventure book. For all the sad moments the film is ultimately very uplifting and valedictory.
Taken in terms of pure entertainment, Up is really good fun. There are a wide range of good jokes on offer, ranging from the comic interplay between Carl and Russell to the squeaky voice of Alpha and the wide shots showing our heroes pulling the house along the cliffs. The chase sequences are suspenseful and well-designed, and the final aerial set-piece is pretty well-structured. The sight of Russell squeaking and scraping along the airship's windows will raise many a chuckle or guffaw.
The other huge plus point of Up is its visuals. It's difficult to talk about the cinematography of CG animated films: unlike the stop-motion efforts of Aardman, there is no actual, physical lighting of which to speak. What is noticeable is that PIXAR's animators are getting better at animating humans and creating fleshy tones. While the human characters in Toy Story look overly angular in hindsight, their counterparts in Up have a good balance between cartoon caricature and realism. Like Pete Docter's previous film, Monsters Inc., the attention to detail is superb, with Kevin's feathers being every bit as meticulous as Sully's hair.
The problems with Up come when it begins to openly embrace convention. This is as much an issue with PIXAR's reputation as it is with the film in itself: we expect them to be ground-breaking to such an extent that when they serve up something more generic we feel short-changed. While there is nothing wrong with embracing genre conventions as a means of giving the fans what they want, it becomes more of a problem when a film is being billed as a work of greatness and innovation.
The emotional arcs of Up are very familiar, with all the characters learning life lessons, things getting worse before they get better and everything ending on a happy note. At times the relationship between Carl and Russell feels a little too rote, with the film resorting to outlandish or goofy sections to keep up the pace (more on those in a second). There is a lack of cynicism to their relationship which lifts it above more sub-standard animations, but considering the talent on offer at PIXAR there is the nagging feeling that they could have come up with something more original.
The other big problem with Up is that it retreats all too readily into a kind of outlandish goofiness, in a manner which undermines the feeling of confidence in the central relationship. The film may be playing to a younger audience, being rated U where Toy Story was a PG, but the question remains: why do we need all the ephemeral stuff if the central relationship is perfectly good? The introduction of Kevin and Dug, while perfectly good fun, is a sign of Docter trying too hard to be cute. This becomes more of a problem when it affects the continuity, with Carl going from a frail old man to all-out action hero just to satisfy the needs of a set-piece.
Ultimately, the film gets away with its slightly histrionic sections on the strength of the performances and our resulting attachment to the characters. Edward Asner based his performance on the later roles of Spencer Tracy, and he succeeds in creating a curmudgeon that we genuinely love and care about. Jordan Nagai is a very good find as Russell, staying just the right side of talkative to be endearing rather than annoying. And Christopher Plummer remains a reliable screen presence, working off Asner very well in the scenes around the table.
Up is a very good addition to the PIXAR canon. While it never quite reaches the dizzy heights of Finding Nemo or WALL-E, it succeeds where Ratatouille failed in delivering a story for all ages and bringing out adult themes in a manner which children can appreciate. Docter directs very nicely, with excellent compositions and bright colours, and as a feel-good effort it works very well. For all its flaws and shortcomings, it's a genial and affecting film that should reward repeat viewing.