Up may be Pixar's darkest animated adventure to date, but it's also the studio's most hopeful, and it's that combination of melancholy and exuberance that makes it such a terrific film. Indeed, it has already been called Pixar's best, although the more important distinction may be its remarkable, history-making cohesiveness, which even award winners like Ratatouille and Wall-E haven't surpassed.
But whether you're an academic looking for artistic legitimacy or an average moviegoer simply eager to embrace a colorful, captivating romp, Up is a wonderful film, and certainly destined to be one of the front-runners when critics compile best-of lists at the end of the year.
The film follows septuagenarian Carl Fredericks (Ed Asner), a retired widower who one day decides to literally take off for parts unknown by tying thousands of balloons to his house and lifting it into the sky. Inadvertently recruiting a wilderness scout named Russell (Jordan Nagai) who camped out on his no-longer-earthbound front porch, Carl travels to South America to see landscapes he and his late wife only dreamed of. But when he and Russell run across a strange bird who is being pursued by a pack of talking dogs and their determined, mysterious master, Carl begins to realize that running away from his old life appears to be the first step in finding a new family.
Admittedly, there is almost no synopsis, no matter how thorough, that adequately does justice to the surprises contained in Up. But that's also part of the film's charm: It manages to hold your attention long after you've stopped being able to figure out what's going to happen next. But this sense of mystery and unpredictability is most amazingly a byproduct not of the story's weaknesses but of its strengths; as suggested above, each scene builds upon the previous one and pays off its emotional potential, culminating in a climactic showdown that not only fulfills the demands of blockbuster-grade adventure but provides a catharsis and conclusion for the themes that have been explored in virtually every scene leading up to it.
While all of this sounds terribly intellectual, the film is anything but, and it works so well as a purely fun and funny piece of entertainment that you need only yield to its charms in order to appreciate how well executed almost every scene is. Carl himself is deeply human, interesting and complicated, but Russell is equally complex, precisely because the two of them have a natural friction that eventually evolves into a real and rewarding chemistry, whether they're stumbling through jungle underbrush, protecting a new traveling companion or hanging high in the sky as pups in planes dogfight (literally) around them.
Speaking of which, the dogs in the film are so brilliantly realized that I felt I was not only seeing but hearing real canines, thanks to character development that gives them both sophistication and comical simplicity. I defy anyone to react any less enthusiastically when they see Dug steal bites of hot dog from a human's plate and retreat, wounded, after Carl scolds him—much less any of the dozen times in which the film's animals find themselves inescapably distracted from the task at hand by the prospect of a nearby squirrel.
Ultimately, however, it's the humans who define the emotional dimensions of the story, and both give a depth to the breakneck action, and an authenticity to its boundless sentimentality. In other words, Up delivers like no other movie released this year thus far, operating as a massive summer movie and an intimate character study at the same time and with equal impact. Of course, one supposes if you yourself are easily distracted by something as superficial as a squirrel, it matters little that there are callbacks and references and payoffs that reward more attentive audience members. But be thankful that there are films that examine what means the most even after you've chased the thing that means the least, especially when—as in the case of this amazing, beautiful masterpiece—they can do both at the same time.