Among Pixar’s animated greats, ‘Up’ stands tall

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by Bill Wine

Each week, veteran film critic Bill Wine will look back at an important film that is worth watching, either for the first time or again.

Ho hum: another animated masterpiece.  Must be Pixar. What's “Up” with that?

‘Up’ is another one of Pixar Studio’s animated masterpieces.

This makes umpteen feature-length, computer-animated cartoons from Pixar, including “Toy Story,” “A Bug's Life,” “Monsters, Inc.,” “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles,” “Cars,” “Ratatouille,” and “WALL-E.”  Not to mention triumphant sequels galore. Has there ever been a movie studio with this kind of quality control?

“Up,’ a bittersweet tale of literal and psychological escape from the mundane which spans seven decades and two continents, is about Carl Fredricksen, a dyspeptic widower voiced by Ed Asner, a square-jawed 78-year-old who looks like a cross between Spencer Tracy and Asner himself.

More or less sleepwalking through the routines of daily existence, frequently glancing at a photo of his late wife, the grouchy recluse feels that his life is over because the love of his life has died.

And he's now faced with eviction to an old-age home. So the former balloon salesman hooks 10,000 multicolored, helium-filled balloons to the roof of his house and fulfills a lifelong dream by flying off to the mysterious South American jungle.

He hopes to arrive at remote Paradise Falls in Venezuela, a place he had always hoped to visit with his beloved wife, Ellie, and that he has actually longed to see ever since, as a kid, he saw a newsreel about world-famous explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) having returned from there.

Well, he'll encounter Muntz soon enough. But first he'll discover that he has an inadvertent stowaway aboard his floating domicile in the form of an eight-year-old boy named Russell (Jordan Nagai), an enterprising lad who hopes to earn his "assisting the elderly" badge in an effort to become a Senior Wilderness Explorer.

Among the creatures that Carl and Russell encounter when they arrive at their destination are a rare 13-foot-tall flightless bird that Russell names Kevin, and a pack of dogs wearing high-tech collars that translate their canine thoughts into human speech in several languages.  Yeah, just like the creatures in your neighborhood.

Animation veterans Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, who co-wrote and co-directed, pull off the tricky feat of blending pathos and absurdism, and manage to indulge a mood of melancholia throughout their wondrous magic show without diminishing the magic.

There are all kinds of highlights throughout, many of them hysterically funny sight gags in the Looney Tunes style.  But perhaps the most effective and indelible sequence is a tender wordless montage early on that compresses the story of two lifetimes and a sequence that lasts less than five minutes. If this visual poem of romance and regret doesn't touch, disarm, or overwhelm you, have your vital signs checked immediately.

Two Oscars went the way of “Up”:  Best Animated Film and Best Score.  And its five Oscar nominations included Best Motion Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Sound Editing. 

This visually dazzling, disarmingly unpredictable, brilliantly imaginative animated gem is exquisitely funny, sad, sweet, and zany.  

Who the heck wouldn't be down with “Up”?

Bill Wine is an Emmy-winning film critic who served in that capacity for WTXF and KYW Newsradio. He lives in Chestnut Hill.

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