Carl Fredricksen, the 70-something protagonist of Pixar’s “Up,” is a squat, short-tempered geezer, a virtual knot of rage on legs.
With his neighborhood torn down to make way for a mall, Carl’s is the one home left standing, defiantly, in the face of so-called progress. When the construction team accidentally backs a truck into his mailbox, you half expect Carl to go postal on them with a shotgun, a la Clint Eastwood in “Gran Torino”. (Though the odds of a gun rampage in a Pixar film are about as far-fetched as a G-rated Maria Ozawa flick.)
Like with Clint’s retired auto-worker, though, we feel sorry for Carl (voiced by professional grump Ed Asner) because he’s all alone. His wife and soulmate, Ellie, has passed away, and Carl has no one, only the memories and a deep feeling of regret.
Carl looks back over his years with Ellie, and in a brief, very poetic five-minute montage (which is about the most beautiful filmmaking you will see all year), we see their first connection as kids, their childless marriage and domestic happiness, and their childhood dreams of adventure and travel that were put off and put off until, well, Ellie grew sick and it was too late.
It’s a stunning opening for a children’s film — which “Up” very much is, replete with fantastic birds, a roly-poly cub scout, and plane-flying dogs — one that speaks of loss, of time racing past, of the joys and despairs dealt by fate, of the very things that make up a life.
It suggests that growing old can be a very bleak thing indeed. That it manages to wheedle this premise into a fantastic jungle adventure, without ever losing sight of its themes, is quite an accomplishment.
Like Greta Garbo, Carl just wants to be alone. When he’s ordered into a retirement home for his own safety, Carl — a retired balloon salesman — attaches a few thousand helium balloons to his house and floats off into the sky, cackling at the shocked folk below. Carl plans to live the adventure he and Ellie never had, a trip to Paradise Falls in the most remote corner of South America.
Carl’s solitude is intruded on by a stowaway, though, a moon-faced 8-year-old cub scout named Russell (Jordan Nagai) who’s as hyperactive as Carl is grumpy. They survive a storm before touching down close to Carl’s destination, where they encounter Kevin, a giant emu-sized bird with iridescent feathers, and Dug, a dog with a high-tech collar that allows him to speak.
Carl and Russell are your classic odd-couple pairing, and it will come as no surprise to tell you that curmudgeonly Carl has to learn to open up and accept the kindness of others by film’s end, and to learn that he too, is needed. That codirectors Pete Docter (“Monsters Inc.”) and Bob Petersen manage to do this without being too heavy-handed is to their credit. While they’re great at the more touching moments, and also at scenes of awestruck wonder — like when Carl’s flying house touches down on that mountain plateau towering above the clouds — Docter and Petersen’s sense of humor can seem a bit too hokey much of the time, lacking the more inspired zaniness of, say, “The Incredibles”.
If “Up” has a fault, it’s merely that it’s following in the footsteps of “Wall-E,” which was possibly the best animated film of the decade. This is Pixar’s first foray into 3-D filmmaking, though, and it’s supposedly a much more rollicking adventure when viewed with glasses on. Amazingly, the local distributor only previewed the plain vanilla 2-D version, so you’ll have to find out for yourselves. Even a hokey Pixar is head and shoulders above the competition, and I can’t imagine anyone’s kids not enjoying the ride.