Illustration from Bill the Minder by W. Heath Robinson, 1912
I am an unapologetic fan of kids' movies, and nobody makes movies for adult fans of kids' movies like Pixar. Pixar films have a way of presenting stories with style, humor, emotion, and theme that make them worthy of multiple viewings. And they are fun to talk about, which is not something that can be said for a lot of other kids' fare. Pixar movies are always at least a little ambitious, and I find that my enjoyment relates directly to how ambitious they get. Cars and Finding Nemo are fun, but I get more from the controversial politics of The Incredibles and the unique vision of Ratatouille and Wall-E. So, obviously Up appealed to me as a concept - a movie for children about aging, death, and regret!
The trick to Up (and there will be some very minor spoilers here) is getting Carl, the film's main character, to where he needs to be at the beginning of the story. Carl is a recent widower fed up with his life who decides to fulfill his wife's dream of travel and adventure. For the movie to work, you have to know how Carl gets to this point, and writer/director Pete Docter pulls this off with one of the best opening montages I've seen (Up is actually structurally similar to this year's Watchmen in starting with a sequence that makes promises the movie cannot possibly live up to). The key is making the viewer fall in love with Ellie, Carl's wife, a character that by necessity must be "present" without being on-screen for the remainder of the movie. By pulling this off with masterful editing and a beautiful musical score, Docter connects the viewer to Carl in a very short time. The rest of the movie exists only in the context of the opening sequence, as all of Carl's adventures and interactions are motivated by his relationship with Ellie.
So Carl takes off for South America in his flying house, and his adventures in the sky seem ripe for an episodic series of encounters, but Up is focused on a single linear thread of plot, almost to a fault. Carl's journey is fairly abbreviated, and the movie's second and third act play out a rivalry between Carl and his childhood hero, the explorer Charles Muntz. Muntz is not a particularly compelling villain - a typical Howard-Hughes-style monomaniac - but he doesn't really drag Up down. In his struggle to make Ellie's dream come true, Carl encounters a neglected Boy Scout, Russell, a talking dog called Dug, and an exotic bird named Kevin. Each of these supporting characters brings a youthful energy to the film that compensates for the geriatric axis of Carl and Muntz, and they also represent aspects of Carl's relationship with Ellie that he needs to confront to find peace. In different ways, Russell and Dug represent the children that Carl never had as well as the innocence and wonder that drew him to Ellie in the first place. Kevin is a symbol for the "sense of adventure" and the discovering of new things that was a big part of his early friendship with Ellie.
Some of the symbolism is a little heavy-handed, like the obvious baggage that Carl is carrying around with him, represented by a huge floating house tied around his waist. But it's very satisfying to see Carl figure out what he's doing with his life as he lets others in to fill the gap that Ellie left. I'm not sure how kids will connect with this theme - I honestly think it was presented in a clearer and more direct way in Toy Story 2 - but it made the movie very enjoyable for me. And Pixar has already proven that they are willing to make kids stretch a little to connect with a movie - they'll tell a story about an Epicurean rat would square off against a repressed food critic and expect kids to figure it out.
I didn't see Up in 3D, but the visuals are good enough without the additional effects (friends have told me that the 3D version doesn't add much.) The movie has plenty of funny moments for kids and grown-ups without ever stooping to body-function humor, and the score is as good as any Pixar music I can remember. I'd put Up in the middle to upper echelon of Pixar movies, above Monsters Inc. and Cars but below Toy Story 2 and Wall-E. And that's pretty good company to be keeping.
"Up!" by Palomar