Nobody these days tells stories as cinematically as do the people at Pixar. At least for the first half-hour of their films. The opening of last year's WALL•E might have been a lost masterpiece of silent cinema; it is visually rapturous and witty, relating its touching fable with precise and evocative images and brilliantly elliptical cuts, and with no dialogue other than sound effects and some clips from Hello, Dolly! It is that rare film that allows the intelligence and imagination of the audience to fill in the gaps. Unfortunately, once WALL•E and EVE board the spaceship, the requisite environmental homily commences.
VIDEO: The trailer for Up
Written and directed by Pete Docter (who co-wrote WALL•E) and Bob Peterson (with some writing assistance from Tom McCarthy of The Station Agent), Up also boasts a tour-de-force opening, evoking Citizen Kane, King Kong, and The Wizard of Oz in its first five minutes alone. A mock newsreel tells the story of the great explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), who has returned from Paradise Falls, a lost world somewhere in Venezuela, to present his discovery, a prehistoric monster, on stage à la King Kong. But Muntz turns out to be more like the man behind the curtain in Oz, or so say the experts, who denounce him as a phony. He disappears, vowing to be vindicated.
Watching this in a movie theater, young Carl Fredricksen can't believe it. So he and fellow Muntz fan Ellie (Elie Docter, Pete's daughter) try to keep the Paradise Falls myth alive. The montage of wordless images that follows traces their lives together: a wedding, a house, a dream deferred, a hospital bed. It ends with Carl (Edward Asner) metamorphosed into a curmudgeonly widower beleaguered by developers who are after his property, the precious house that's the last vestige of his beloved Ellie.
Here is the point at which many Pixar pictures go astray. Not this time. Just when Up seems about to descend into familiar narrative and thematic terrain, Docter and Peterson trim the sails and turn in an unexpected direction.
That starts with Russell (Jordan Nagai), the "wilderness scout" who shows up on Carl's doorstep hoping to earn a merit badge by aiding the elderly. At first he's merely annoying, but by the time the two set sail in Carl's balloon-powered house, Russell has become irresistible and irrepressible. In the same way, Muntz's talking dogs (he's rigged them up with some kind of high-tech translating collars) would come off as a contrived if the details of their canine behavior were not so precise and familiar.
And that's the case with the film's signature image, Carl's house. At times, the banal structure sprouting a huge, radiant bouquet of balloons resembles a canvas by Magritte. At others, it seems like an image from Beckett, suspended inches above the ground as Carl drags it, Sisyphus-like, to its final resting place. Near the end of the movie, Russell touches on the key to the film's power of metamorphosis. He reminisces about his life and concludes that the boring stuff was the best. Up masters that boring stuff and so has the right to transform it into something magical.
Such magic owes nothing to the film's hyped 3-D format. It's a distraction. 3-D may not be the future of movies. But Up's limpid storytelling, thrilling visuals, endearing characters, and respect for its audience are.