Usually I think of "family entertainment" as a term of abuse. But the digimations created by the House of Pixar have provided a consistent – and consistently astonishing – exception to this rule.
Ever since their 1995 debut, Toy Story, the studio has been perfecting a form of entertainment that somehow spans the ages, appealing to a sense of wonderment (for kids), a sense of human complexity (for adults), and an honest-to-God sense of fun (for both). Up, their latest, continues this miraculous run even while it boldly departs from the Hollywood norm, for the hero of the story is neither child nor grown-up. The hero – whisper it – is an old person.
Who else would dare? What's more remarkable is the 15-minute prologue that chronicles the hero's life from youth to dotage. As a boy, Carl Fredricksen idolises the derring-do of the famous aviator-explorer Charles Muntz, and then meets a gap-toothed tomboy named Ellie who shares entirely his yearning for adventure. Muntz eventually disappears in search of the legendary Paradise Falls in South America; Carl and Ellie marry, daydream, gaze at the clouds, suffer a terrible grief, and grow into contented old age together. Their life is recounted in a beautiful miniature of compression – maybe the finest thing Pixar has ever done – and it ends with Carl as widower, stranded in a loneliness as poignant as that of the robot trash collector mooching through the first half-hour of Wall-E. Now a grouchy old geezer, bulbous of nose and cuboid of jaw, Carl finds his house dwarfed by a soulless high-rise development and about to be repossessed; he himself will soon be carted off to a retirement home.
Carl doesn't want to surrender the place, redolent of his years with Ellie, so he takes a trip up, up and away, yanking the whole house from its foundations courtesy of a tutti-frutti bouquet of helium balloons and heading off into the clouds. The sight of the house floating across the horizon is as madly surreal and quixotic as the boat being hauled over a mountain in Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, and becomes twice as funny, for Carl finds a stowaway on board his airborne homestead. This would be nine-year-old Russell, a roly-poly wilderness explorer eager to collect an "Assisting the Elderly" merit badge and thus complete his collection. Irritant though he is, the kid becomes a doughty companion to the old man, who decides to seek out the sort of adventure he and Ellie used to promise themselves before life got in the way.
And adventure is exactly what they find, touching down in the jungle and encountering (a) a giant multicoloured bird long believed to be extinct, and (b) a ravening pack of dogs whose mysterious owner has fitted them with collars that turn canine thoughts into words. This is where the storytelling, already on an upward swing, goes stratospheric, and without giving too much away, our unlikely duo end up prisoners in a gigantic zeppelin staffed by those same dogs. Being Pixar, it teems with fabulous visual jokes, some of which fly past so quickly that you've barely time to laugh before another one is up and running. I don't know why the sight of a dog carefully dusting a bone – part of a museum exhibit – and then suddenly gnawing at it should be so funny, but it is. Then there's the magnificent absurdity of two senior citizens in violent hand-to-hand combat, one using a sword, the other his metal walker, and both frozen in mid-swipe by a simultaneous crick in the back.
Yet no matter how zanily inventive co-directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson get, their script remains somehow rooted in the reality of its characters. Carl (wonderfully voiced by Ed Asner) is the vital ballast to the story's gossamer floatiness, and we warm to him because beneath the gruff exterior he's plainly a loveable fellow. Other creatures spend the story attaching themselves to him, like burrs on a coat, first Russell, then that giant bird, then even a mutt named Dug ("You are my master and I love you!") until we sense that the film might just be a sneaky tribute to pensioner power. The animators deserve credit here for the lively particularity of Carl's face, framed by the austere rectangular specs Yves Saint Laurent used to wear. His downturned mouth seems to speak of disappointment, but tenderness is kindled in his rheumy old eyes. Towards the end of the plot, still spinning furiously, you notice tiny glints of silver stubble on his chin: who, after all, would have had time to shave during this mayhem?
The film, presented in 3D, does not deploy the effect in that in-your-face style so popular of late. (No spears or spikes protrude pointily from the screen). The Pixar boffins are confident enough in their own draughtsmanship not to blitz our eyes with it, though there's still a wondrous sense of depth to the mountain scenery, to the cloudscapes, and to those vertiginous moments in which a character is clinging for dear life to a rope or ledge as the drop yawns beneath them. Up is buoyant with thrills and spills, yet it's anchored, quite movingly, in the acceptance of mortality. This rollercoaster ride will leave everyone on an up, even those of us who've crested the apex and now, like Carl, see life's curve heading all the way down.
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