Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Early in Up there is a sequence that distills all the best that animation powerhouse Pixar brings to filmmaking. After a brief prologue introducing us to a pair of kids named Carl and Ellie, we watch without a word of dialogue as the childhood friends become sweethearts and traverse 50 years of married life. Like the "When She Loved Me" sequence in Toy Story 2, it's an emotionally wrenching montage; like much of WALL-E, it's an example of what pure visual storytelling can deliver.
This kind of jaw-dropping, tear-jerking brilliance is what we have come to expect as everyday stuff from Pixar. Mere excellence almost feels like a letdown.
As Up moves into its primary storyline, that's the challenge co-writer/director Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.) faces. In the present day, Carl (Edward Asner) is an elderly curmudgeon, living alone in his house while high-rises grow around him. Facing the prospect of a retirement home, Carl instead launches his house into the air with a massive cascade of balloons and a plan to head to a South American jungle. There's also an unexpected hitchhiker: Russell (Jordan Nagai), a young wilderness explorer.
The stage is set for the kind of character arc that, unfortunately, has dragged down many sentimental dramas: Ill-tempered adult learns to re-connect with life by having to care for child. Docter and his co-director/writer Bob Peterson make efforts to give the premise a twist, refusing to make Russell a wise-beyond-his-years smart-aleck. But the gravel-voiced Asner doesn't quite find a vocal performance that brings Carl to life. The center of the story, for too long, is a generic Grumpy Old Man, no matter that he eventually turns into a liver-spotted Indiana Jones.
Instead, the pleasures in Up emerge from the periphery. Once they reach their destination, Carl and Russell discover a rare bird that the boy dubs Kevin, and the animators revel in its playful expressiveness. Our heroes also run across dogs outfitted by a long-lost explorer (Christopher Plummer) with voice-generating collars, and the gimmick of hearing what is going on in a canine's head is used to riotous effect — most notably in the over-eager mutt named Dug (voiced by Peterson). Unlike animated fare that regularly references pop-culture, Up bases its humor on character — and even when a reference does sneak in, like dogs playing poker, it's understated enough to warrant a big laugh.
There's no question that Up delivers as entertainment. Docter directs a few tremendously satisfying action sequences, including a chase sequence across cliffs and rivers, an airborne dogfight that actually involves dogs, and what may be cinema's first knock-down drag-out hand-to-hand combat between two characters old enough to qualify for Social Security.
What it's not — at least not enough of the time — is truly transporting. Up certainly shows storytelling prowess, and even finds another touching moment near its end. But nothing matches the magic of that early sequence, and Carl doesn't prove to be nearly as engaging once he starts talking. Even the visuals of the film's remote tropical location are satisfying without really offering a wow factor. Docter plays the best material he has at the outset, and as a result he faces the blessing/curse of being part of the Pixar legacy: He crafts an enjoyable, at times lovely, piece of family-friendly filmmaking, and it still ends up feeling a bit disappointing.