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Such Great Heights
A fabled journey
by Molly Templeton
UP: Directed by Pete Docter. Co-directed by Bob Peterson. Screenplay by Docter and Peterson; story by Docter, Peterson and Tom McCarthy. Music, Michael Giacchino. Starring the voices of Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer and Bob Peterson. Disney/Pixar, 2009. PG. 96 minutes.
Appropriately enough, the 10th movie from Pixar — the studio that’s created inspired animated films from Toy Story to last year’s WALL-E — begins at the movies, where young Carl Fredricksen is as enraptured as a child watching Finding Nemo for the 14th time. Carl, however, is entranced with a newsreel feature on the explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). Never mind that by the end of the piece, Muntz is somewhat on the outs with the adventuring community; Carl still runs down the sidewalk with the announcer’s voice in his head and Muntz-like goggles over his eyes, leaping sidewalk cracks and pebbles as if they were canyons and mountains. When Carl finds another kid, redheaded Ellie, with the same dreams of adventure, a great partnership is formed.
And then Up leaps through the years, mostly in a elegant montage of scenes from Carl and Ellie’s life that gives their relationship affecting depth in a few scant minutes. Their plans to go to Paradise Falls — where Muntz went, swearing he wouldn’t return without the bird scientists didn’t believe he really found — keep getting derailed by the more mundane details of life.
This sequence is the masterpiece of Up. Its wordless depiction of the joys and sorrows of Carl and Ellie’s life together is a glorious introduction to the graceful simplicity that is the film’s trademark. This isn’t the detailed world of Wall-E or the Paris of Ratatouille, though its heroes go on just as remarkable a journey. It’s a blockier, stockier universe, one where people’s bodies are overwhelmed by their heads and everything is at a scale just slightly too great to be realistic. Paradise Falls towers at three times the height of the real world’s tallest waterfall. Carl — now old, crotchety and voiced by Ed Asner — reaches it in a house towed by countless helium-filled balloons.
And he’s not alone. To balance Carl’s reticent sadness, we have the round and chattering Russell (Jordan Nagai), a Junior Wilderness Explorer whose bright yellow uniform certainly makes him stand out in the actual wilderness. In South America — a place cinematically inhabited by frogs, birds and no people — the two bicker and gripe at each other, towing the balloon-buoyed house all the while. Creatures appear and befriend Russell, to Carl’s annoyance: The bright, chocolate-loving bird, Kevin, and the not-so-bright talking dog, Dug (voiced by co-director Bob Peterson), tumble through the film with enthusiasm and glee; like Russell, they’re inclined to movement and instinct, with much more in common with the child Carl was than the walker-toting grump he is now.
But Up isn’t suggesting that Carl’s adventures are over just because he’s gone and gotten old. Though it trips through a few too-conventional moments in its latter half, Up still manages to keep its sweeter, sentimental side simultaneously in check and indulged, to just the right degree. Of course Carl has to step outside the doors of the house that’s so much a memory of Ellie that he talks to it as if it were her (her presence hovers over the entire movie, but her person is sorely missed). Of course he’ll come to leave his crotchety ways behind and reconnect with the world. But Up pauses, near the end, for a moment that draws out its deepest theme as silently, and almost as gracefully, as that early sequence of Carl and Ellie growing old. Even while it’s a clever, funny adventure, Up is a movie about rising out of the murk of grief and finding that the world is still out there, going about its business, offering the same charms, dangers and wonders it did before.