It’s time we faced the fact that the folks at Pixar are not infallible. The animation studio’s steady stream of masterful films that also make tons of money at the box office (The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-E, etc.) may make it seem like an unassailable fount of creativity and brilliance, but as demonstrated by Pixar’s latest creation, Up, sometimes it’s just a company that makes decent movies for kids.
Of course, that in itself is something worthy of praise, an achievement that other companies prove frequently unable to reach. Up is entertaining and pleasant to watch, made with a great amount of care and guaranteed to provide 90 or so minutes of babysitting for kids without annoying or boring their parents. That’s enough to make it worthwhile for families, but it’s something that recent non-Pixar movies like Bolt and Monsters vs. Aliens have managed to deliver as well. So do we praise this movie for being above average, or do we dismiss it for not being Finding Nemo?
Well, a little bit of both. First, the good stuff: Up starts with a wonderful faux-newsreel segment detailing the exploits of 1930s (-ish) adventurer Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer), determined to prove the existence of an exotic bird in a secluded South American enclave known as Paradise Falls. Young Carl Fredericksen is fascinated with Muntz’s adventures, as is his friend Ellie. They bond over their thirst for exploration, which sends the movie into its one moment of true Pixarian inspiration: a wordless montage that tracks Carl and Ellie’s relationship from kiddie courtship through senior citizenship, ending with Carl (now voiced by Ed Asner) mourning the death of his beloved. Like the recent innovative plot-delivering montages that opened Watchmen and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, this proves to be the best part of the movie.
If Up goes downhill from there, it’s on nowhere near as steep a grade as in those other films, though, as the actual story here is sweet and warm. Lost without his longtime companion, Carl finds himself facing life in a nursing home; instead, he ties hundreds of helium balloons to his house and decides to finally embark on the South American adventure he and Ellie never had the chance to take. What he doesn’t account for is the overeager Boy Scout (or non-copyright-infringing analogue thereof) stowing away on his stoop, or that once he arrives at Paradise Falls, Muntz will still be there, presiding over an army of dogs equipped with voice boxes and still tracking down that elusive exotic bird.
The actual flight of the house is only a small part of the story, which becomes mostly about crotchety Carl bonding with overenthusiastic young Russell (Jordan Nagai) and facing off against Muntz to save the squawky bird (Russell names it Kevin) from being captured and put on display. In its relationship between Carl and Russell, Up resembles an innocuous kiddie version of Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, as the resigned, selfish old man lightens up through helping out his young Asian neighbor. The platitudes, too, are just as obvious, although the dialogue is better. And the plight of the annoying bird is a weak motivator for the plot to hinge on, never feeling like it has enough weight to carry the big set pieces.
The Paradise Falls landscape, which bears a more-than-passing resemblance to King Kong’s Skull Island, indeed looks lush and lovely, but it never really comes alive. Russell and talking dog Dug, who takes a shine to Carl, are just as cutesy and annoying as the bird, and Muntz is not a very threatening villain (although a fight scene in which he and Carl have to keep adjusting their spines is pretty funny). Director Pete Docter last helmed another middling Pixar effort, 2001’s Monsters, Inc., and proves himself a solid journeyman for the company here, turning in an enjoyable movie that’s also something Pixar’s work usually isn’t—forgettable.