Have Pixar outgrown the animation industry? You could certainly argue they have. Typically the domain of sassy talking animals and cutesy characters, it's a playground which Pixar seem to have grown bored with. As is obvious with their new movie Up, Pixar's interest is not marketability or merchandising or franchise potential, but story and character - this is their least showy film to date. It's also probably the most likely to nab them their first nomination for Best Picture at next year's Oscars.
Want your first hint that this is no ordinary toon? Up begins with a touching montage of main character Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) and his partner Ellie as they meet as young children and eventually grow old together. Thrown together by a shared spirit of adventure, Carl and Ellie are forced to shelve their plans to move to South America as life, as always, gets in the way. This wordless, eloquent, effortlessly heart-breaking sequence illustrates just how far Pixar have come since Toy Story - it's single-handedly the best thing they've ever done and will melt even the iciest of hearts.
The story really begins when 78 year-old Carl decides to tie thousands of balloons to his house and float away to Paradise Falls. However, an eager young stowaway scout named Russell (Jordan Nagai) inadvertently hitches a ride and Pixar's typical two-pronged buddy adventure takes shape. Think of their dynamic as like a cuddly Gran Torino, just without the racial slurs.
Up is a movie that's more human and more relatable than anything Pixar have ever done before. The movie's overriding themes are adult in nature - it's about enjoying life, experiencing a loss of purpose and ultimately accepting death. It's unspoken, but Carl is basically moving to South America to die. Heavy stuff - not a topic you're likely to see broached in Kung Fu Panda 2: The Kaboom Of Doom.
Sure, there are the pre-requisite uppers to go with the downers. Also residing on Paradise Falls is lost explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) who, along with his army of dogs, provides a tangible villain for audiences to boo and hiss. What's more, Pixar haven't ditched their cuddly creatures completely; affectionate dog Dug (who can talk, thanks to a translating dog collar gadget) and exotic bird Kevin at least give the little'uns something to coo over.
Otherwise, Up is ironically one of the most grounded movie Pixar have made yet. Yes, Paradise Falls is beautiful (it's based in part on Angel Falls in Venezuela) but conventionally so - it's no unreal Eden. Some locales are grey and rocky, some are green and leafy, but it's a very real world that Pixar are presenting - one that looks as if you could reach out and touch it when watching in 3D.
The animation is similarly down to Earth. Carl is endearingly blocky - basically comprising of three squares with a face - while travel companion Russell wobbles like a Weeble. Kevin the bird is gawky and awkward, like a tie-dyed ostrich, while Dug looks like... well, a dog - albeit the happiest dog you've ever seen. Pixar's animators use clear lines and strong primary colours to paint with; the result is a film that looks at once exotic and familiar.
The relative downside is that, consequently, Up lacks the 'wow' factor that films like WALL-E
had in spades. Save for the opening launch sequence and a last-reel dogfight (literally), Up unfolds via words rather than actions. This is by no means a bad thing - the characters will grown on you like fungii - but there are no scenes that compare to WALL-E touching the stars or Mike and Sully's frantic door factory showdown in Monsters, Inc.
Instead, you are swept along on a journey - emotional as well as physical - with some of the most well-crafted characters Pixar have ever lumped together. Up is one of their shortest film yet at 96 minutes, and it's telling that it doesn't feel nearly long enough, but there are countless moments of genius animation touches, subtle humour and movie in-jokes that will reward a repeat viewing. Michael Giacchino's sweeping score is simply sublime and is well worth a listen, whether you see Up or not.
But is Up as good as WALL-E or Toy Story or Finding Nemo? Not quite, though in certain aspects, it certainly comes close. But, as previously mentioned, it feels like it's more than just a mere animation - it has more heart and soul in its tiniest pixel than most competitors' movies can boast in their entirety. You'll laugh and you'll cry, but you won't fail to be lifted.