While watching the latest Pixar animated feature Up, it doesn’t take long to embark on one of the sweetest montage sequences you’ll ever see. In a matter of a few animated minutes, we watch Charles Frederickson age from a young boy through the entire thick-and-thin span of a marriage. It’s sweet, and it’s bittersweet, and it is full of the small, gentle things. Then he is an old man.
It’s a lovely, lovely sequence radiating the power of animation. If you’ve ever wondered about the bizarre human instinct for storytelling – why we have such a real emotional response from something we know is pretend – that feeling must stand in triplicate for Mickey Mouse and friends.
How does a wholly imaginary image affect us as if it were flesh and blood? (It also should bolster the thoughts of those who after Wall-E believe all Pixar personnel sit around watching Stanley Kubrick all day. It shares a touch of the Dave Bowman aging sequence at the end of 2001).
Up is an old-man’s adventure largely free of cynicism. The montage evolves and humanizes our elderly hero, bringing an emotional appeal to his curmudgeonly self. Even its get-off-my-lawn moments are dabbed in generosity. As a child, Charles (voiced by Ed Asner) falls in love with flying. From the magic of newsreels, he takes on an aviator hero.
The explorer disappears into the jungles of South America at a spot called Paradise Falls. Flight also becomes the path to his heart. He falls in love, and later marries, a girl who is just as passionate about the wild blue yonder. They plan to one day visit the Falls themselves.
Decades later, with bulldozers on the doorstep of his house, he finally decides to make the trip. His flight plan: attach thousands of birthday balloons to the top of his house and float away.
The curmudgeon is accidentally joined by the stowaway Russell, a dim but lovable eleven-year old who is a member of an organization called Wilderness Scouts. On the trail to the Falls, they share adventures with a giant popsicle-colored bird and a dog who can talk from a device on his collar. It’s hard to say you had a problem with a movie’s talking dogs. But there are about three talking dogs too many. One dog ends up with the voice of Alvin the Chipmunk. It breaks the spell, changing the tone from sweetness to ironic posturing.
The other error is tacking on an unneeded final action caper. By then, the film has already ended emotionally. However, these are minor blemishes for one of the more human films that you will see this year.
The unsurprising quality of the animation is instantly clear. Marvel at the realness of the spotlight falling from a dirigible. Or enjoy how a newsreel sequence seems just like an archived newsreel but one covering the lives of cartoon characters. This is part of the Pixar appeal.
Often their films do not feel like they have been “drawn” by human beings. They feel like films that come from the planet where the animated people live. When I say Up is my favorite recent Pixar film, it might not carry the same weight as if it were coming from other smitten critics. Ratatouille left me cold.
Perhaps I still feel bitter about the Plague. One day I expect to ask the same sort of questions about the political trendiness of Wall-E that I ask about Star Trek IV: What were we saving the whales from, again? But I do mean to pay Up a high compliment.
And it is hard to imagine anyone having anything but a good time.