Film critics experience varying degrees of disappointment. Terminator Salvation, for example, disappoints because it's terrible and shouldn't have been made, let alone released. The ironically titled Up, on the other hand, disappoints because it doesn't soar quite as high as its acclaimed Pixar predecessors. Holding each new Pixar flick up to such lofty expectations sounds unfair until you realize the animation factory's outstanding features routinely meet the studio's admittedly sky-high quality bar. And some -- like last year's WALL-E, a very tough act to follow -- raise the bar to even dizzier heights.
Up doesn't manage that. It's good, not great, Pixar -- an elegant and somber reflection on life's unfinished business and our tendencies to put even the biggest dreams on the shelf. And as we discovered with Cars, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille, even good Pixar trumps traditional animation from rival studios, and certainly deserves your time. Article continues below
As Up begins, young Carl Fredricksen sits in a movie theater absorbing newsreels about his idol, adventurer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), whose final quest takes him to South America to capture an enormous bird scientists claim doesn't exist. Carl's infatuation with Muntz -- and his unquenchable thirst for action -- leads him to fellow daredevil Ellie. For these outcasts, puppy love is the all-inclusive clubhouse for which they've been searching.
Up peaks early with a winsome, sentimental, five-minute flashback montage covering the decades Carl and Ellie spend together. Their life has highs and lows, culminating in a tearjerker of a shot that involves balloons -- the ultimate symbol of childhood exuberance -- and a casket. The sequence is vintage Pixar, humorous and heartbreaking but always advancing the story.
Up doesn't approach such emotional resonance once the main thrust of the story gets going, where Carl, now an old widower voiced by Ed Asner, ties enough balloons to his cherished house to elevate it off the ground and pilot it to South America, where he promised Ellie he'd take her so many years ago. Carl unknowingly carries a stowaway when Cub Scout Russell, an egg-shaped chatterbox voiced by Jordan Nagai, stands on the man's porch as his house lifts off. Together, they land in Paradise Falls, where Muntz and his pack of talking dogs suspect the duo of trying to steal the explorer's elusive bird (which Russell finds within minutes, luring him with chocolate and naming him Kevin).
Pete Docter (of Monsters Inc.) and Bob Peterson direct from the latter's screenplay, fashioning Up into a mature conversation about keeping one's promises. Russell routinely talks about his absentee father, who says he'll be at the badge ceremony if the boy earns his final pin for assisting the elderly. Carl promises to bring Ellie's house to Muntz's waterfall, then has to make good on a promise to take care of Russell. Even Kevin the bird needs Carl and Russell to help it get back to its hungry young, as promised.
But Peterson's script cuts corners. A conveniently placed storm helps transport Carl's house from an undetermined city to South America (he's not in Kansas anymore). It wasn't smart to have Russell find and befriend Kevin, managing in minutes what Muntz couldn't accomplish in decades. I even found myself bothered by the physics of Carl's floating house, a whimsical but impossible device that kept taking me out of the story. (I had similar problems with Remy the rat, who foolishly manipulated chef Linguini by strategically tugging his hair.) Carl's also the most nimble senior citizen I've seen since Cocoon, and he possesses the arm strength of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger. Even the short film preceding Up, a cloud-and-stork comedy, is pleasant but unremarkable.
These nagging issues likely will float over the heads of pint-sized patrons, who will be amused by loyal Dug (Peterson), the talking dog, and enthralled by an aerial battle between Carl's crumbling abode and Muntz's powerful blimp. The aircraft is dubbed the Spirit of Adventure, by the way. I'd have been much happier if Docter and his team had instilled Up with its own adventurous spirit, however, instead of slapping the suggestive moniker on the side of a dirigible and calling it a day.