The premise alone is enchanting: Overwhelmed by grief, an old man launches his tumbledown house into the air with thousands of brightly colored helium balloons. Soaring above the clouds into a soft blue sky, the flying house represents escapism at its loveliest, unbound by any hard laws of physics, the realization of a blissful dream.
It’s a testament to how high the standards for Pixar are that this glorious image isn’t a surprise. We expect greatness from the studio that gave us Wall-E and Ratatouille and Finding Nemo, to name just a few, so it feels almost redundant to report that yes, once again, the animation studio has delivered. But deliver it has. Up is tender and funny and imaginative and beautiful—no less so for having been preceded by other such gems.
When we first meet the protagonist of Up, Carl Fredricksen is a shy, awkward kid who meets his partner for life in Ellie, a rambunctious chatterbox. Both children hero-worship explorer Charles Muntz and aspire to go on globe-trotting adventures of their own, but they grow up and get married, and in a gentle, wordless montage, we watch their life together unfold, with setbacks and crushing disappointments tempered by their abounding love and their happiness in each other’s company. When Ellie dies, Carl is devastated not only by the sorrow of losing her but also by the self-imposed guilt of having failed to help her realize her childhood dream of adventure in South America. Setting their house aloft is an attempt to belatedly fulfill that dream, in her memory.
Laying out the beginning of the story like that makes Up sound grim, but it’s truly not. The now curmudgeonly widower (voiced by Ed Asner) is an adorable grump, and he gets an inadvertent stowaway on his trip: the pudgy, good-natured Russell (Jordan Nagai), a Wilderness Scout who needs to earn an Assisting the Elderly badge to graduate to the next scouting level. Up plays Mr. Fredricksen and Russell off each other with wit and charm, and it revels in the sense of wonder their fantastic voyage inspires. As for the voyage, one of the deepest pleasures of the movie is watching the story spin out in clever, whimsical ways, so suffice it to say, the homemade dirigible makes it to South America, where the two explorers encounter a peculiar bird, an unusual pack of dogs, and even the long-lost Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), Mr. Fredricksen’s childhood idol—tying everything together with fable-like elegance and a warmly droll sense of humor.
The stylization of the two main characters is enormously engaging. Mr. Fredricksen has an oversized squarish face and squat limbs, and where he has blunt angles, Russell is all pink roundness, somewhat like a balloon himself. The physical contrast is endearing—reflecting the gap between the old man’s closed-off reserve and the little boy’s innocent openness—but it has nothing on the gorgeous painterly vistas the two encounter. The vibrant colors shimmer with light, and the panoramas evoke all manner of imaginary places. I could take or leave the 3D (I simply cannot get excited about that stupid, gimmicky technology), but regardless, Up is magical simply to look at.
This being a Pixar movie, it’s also a magical emotional experience. After the exquisite prologue, which is heartbreaking in how very real it feels, Up leaps away into fantasy but ultimately finds a graceful way to return to earth. In other words, the movie seriously contemplates Carl Fredricksen’s journey through grief and regret in a delightfully imaginative way. It’s another triumph for Pixar, for whom all superlatives feel increasingly inadequate. Still, however inadequate it might be, let it be said again: Like its much-loved predecessors, Up is a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful film.