There might not be a more dependable name in all of Hollywood than Pixar, and their tenth animated feature, Up, continues the studio's remarkable hot streak.
As is usually the case, the premise is elegantly simple: in order to fulfill a promise to his dearly departed adventure-loving wife, senior citizen Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) flies to South America by hitching thousands of helium balloons to the house they built together. As silly as that may sound, director Pete Docter captures the audience's heart right from the beginning, thanks to an opening ten minutes that encapsulate the happy, decades-long marriage Carl shared with his dear Ellie. Following the duo from their first meeting as children who idolized the same superstar adventurer, to their tragic inability to have children, to their final moments together, this sweet, nearly dialogue-free sequence stands as arguably the most poignant in Pixar history -- right alongside WALL-E's spacewalk, and Jessie's abandonment in Toy Story 2. It's a remarkably emotional way to start things off, but it sets the audience up for all the amazing things that follow precisely because you never question why Carl acts on his obsession.
But, of course, he doesn't go on this journey by himself. Wilderness Scout Russell (Jordan Nagai) -- think "green" Boy Scout -- happens to be on Carl's porch right when the house takes off. Russell enthusiastically offers his assistance because if he can help an old person, he'll be able to earn the final badge he needs to become a Senior Wilderness Scout -- and gain his dad's elusive attention. They're eventually joined by Dug (Bob Peterson), a dog that talks with the help of a special collar invented by his owner, who turns out to have a special role in Carl's past.
Divulging any more of the plot would be just plain mean, because above all else, Up is an old-fashioned adventure story -- a throwback to the kind of breathless storytelling that made serials popular in the early days of movies. So much of the fun in watching Up comes from never quite being sure what thrill is right around the corner. You get the feeling that, had Pixar been in business 25 years ago, Steven Spielberg might have made this movie for them as a follow-up to Raiders of the Lost Ark.
But it's not just the anything-could-happen excitement that gives the film a Spielberg vibe, it's also the genuine emotion at the heart of all that adventure. There is real grief, longing, and heartbreak in both Carl and Russell, and that makes us care about what happens to them. In fact, the way that Up grounds its fantastical events in such emotion could also have made it a worthy successor to E.T.
And just as it would be a mistake to dismiss Raiders as just another textbook adventure film or E.T. as just an average lovable-alien-eats-Reese's Pieces flick, it would be equally foolish to think of Up as little more than another CG family film. Pixar doesn't really make family films in the way we've come to use that term -- a dismissive shorthand for something blandly inoffensive. No, Pixar lets smart, quirky artists indulge their creativity, and the results are often the kind of universally appreciated movies that helped make Hollywood a dream factory in the first place. Up fits proudly into that tradition.