Short Version: UP is arguably Pixar's finest achievement to date, and is surprisingly mature (and moving) in its subject matter. Oh, and the 3D visuals are pretty awesome too.
There's nothing better than an easy review: Pixar's latest summer offering, UP, is a fantastic film. Simply fantastic. Seriously, if Ratatouille and Wall-E deserved to be in the running for Best Picture of the Year (as many said they did at the times of their releases) then UP certainly does.
It's that good.
The film - which was written by Bob Peterson (Finding Nemo, Ratatouille) and directed by Peter Docter (Monsters, Inc.) - delivers all the things we've come to expect from a Pixar animated feature: gorgeous visuals, a strong story rife with moral lessons and (gasp) good character development; humor both low-brow (for the kids) and high-brow (for the grownups), with strokes of bold wit and a dash of sagely wisdom for good measure.
And yet, UP also delivers something quite unexpected: Pixar's most adult-oriented story yet, slyly disguised in a fantastic adventure tale.
UP tells the life story of Carl Fredricksen (the unmistakable voice of Ed Asner), a shy little boy who grows up in (1930s?) America, an era in which people pack into movie theaters to watch news reels about adventurous explorers like Charles Muntz, who travels the world on one epic quest after the next.
Young Carl Fredricksen idolizes Muntz: He spends his lonely days roaming his neighborhood pretending to be Muntz until one day he runs into Ellie, an energetic and fearless young girl (everything Carl is not) who idolizes Charles Muntz just as much as Carl does. Ellie and Carl cross their hearts then and there and swear to be great adventurers like Charles Muntz, and with that oath, theirs is a match made in heaven.
After that fateful first encounter, we get a truly beautiful montage of Carl and Ellie's life-long romance. We see the young kids grow into a teenage couple; see them get married and buy a house, working day jobs (balloon vendor) while saving up for the kind of adventures they fantasized about as kids. We watch the couple deal with the ups and downs, joys and tragedies of life; and gradually we watch them grow into old age, Ellie's "My Adventures" scrapbook still unfilled, even as her time on Earth ends.
With Ellie gone, Carl becomes a disgruntled old man desperately trying to hold on to a house, heirlooms and a lost-love he cherishes. A physical confrontation with neighborhood developers leads to Carl being forced into a retirement home for the rest of his days - but before the old man will give in he decides to honor the oath he and Ellie swore as kids and take one last shot at adventure! Carl ties an impossible number of balloons to his house (working a balloon cart at the zoo was his job for many years), rigs a steering system and UP he goes!
But there's a stowaway on board: a young boy scout-type named Russell (Jordan Nagai), who is desparately trying to earn his last merit badge assisting the elderly, for personal reasons that are as moving as a they are heartbreakingly naive. From that point on, the story mainly focuses on Carl trying to find room in his broken heart for love and friendship again, with Russell acting as his primary foil and simultaneous source of inspiration. Russell is also handy for providing the comedic relief the kids will get.
Of course there's a whole flying to South America, evil nemesis (Christopher Plummer), talking dogs/mythical bird adventure thrown in there. All of that stuff is pretty cool, and will be sure to entertain the kids. However, as one of the grownup kids, the story (for me) was all about Carl dealing with his profound sense of loss and love. The flying house escapism, fantastic creatures and evil villains were all just means and metaphors for that awesome emotional narrative.
No lie, there were a lot of sobs and sniffles around me in the theater. If you're old enough to know about love and loss, it's hard not to be affected by UP. By now it's no secret that Pixar knows how to tell a fantastic story, but who knew they could handle romantic drama so well? Superb work.
Visually, UP is just as stunning. The digital 3D tech employed for this film is far from a gimmick - it enhances the experience of the film by multitudes. When Carl and Russell are walking over cliffs or trekking through gorgeously rendered South American jungles, with an enormous floating 3D house harnessed to their backs, it's not just some of the most gorgeous eye-candy seen onscreen (the balloons are truly amazing), it's also a very clever and potent metaphor for grief. Rendered in 3D, those themes stood out loud and clear; the rest of the time, this movie was just a treat to look at.
I confess having wet eyes myself, not once, or twice, but on several instances during UP. Sometimes I was thinking, "This movie is breaking my heart." Other times I was thinking, "This movie is melting my heart." And sometimes, I was simply thinking, "This movie is so damn beautiful."
It definitely lifted me UP.