Considering all the high-tech inventions brought to bear on Pixar’s Up — the Disney-owned animation studio’s first 3D picture — it’s interesting to note how the movie feels surprisingly old-fashioned when it comes to its characters. Director Pete Docter happily borrows from past decades of film for the look of his leads. Take, for example, Carl, the 78-year-old man whose decision to raise his house aloft with helium balloons for a journey south kicks the film’s plot off; he’s voiced by Ed Asner, but he looks surprisingly like a hybrid of Spencer Tracy and Walter Matthau: The parted white hair, the square glasses, the stooped shape, the permanent scowl.
Or look at the movie’s main villain, disgraced explorer Charles Muntz, who’s exiled himself to the wilds of South America in search of the flightless bird he failed to bring back alive decades before. Muntz is voiced by Christopher Plummer, but he looks like a mix of Kirk Douglas and Douglas Fairbanks — the twinkling eyes, the dimpled chin, the pencil-thin moustache, the resolute bearing. Of course, if all Up offered was recreations of the past and visual wonder, it would be a bright, shiny failure, as light and hollow as one of Carl’s balloons. But, thankfully, that’s not the case at all.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Up since I saw it at Cannes (where it had the honor of being the first animated film and the first 3D film to open the festival, albeit out of competition) and I think it’s because there’s something going on underneath all the funny, fizzy flying-house surreal wonder, under all of the comedy-bonding between Carl and his stowaway charge Russell, a young Wilderness Explorer who is clearly unfit to explore actual wilderness. Because even while Up is full of joy and goofiness and good humor, at heart, it’s a movie about letting go and moving on, about not letting your losses defeat you, and that while pain and sadness are part of life, they don’t define it.
I’ve loved most of Pixar’s films (Really, does anyone actually like Cars? Anyone who’s not 8?), and while Up didn’t have the snazzy universe-building of Toy Story or the pop-culture cool of The Incredibles or the epic visual splendor of Finding Nemo or the furry fun of Monsters, Inc., it stuck with me because it had real heart under the sheen and shine of the 3D images, true feeling under the funny. Up may or may not push Pixar’s boundaries of simulated computerized motion (it’s a story so well-told, the technique becomes invisible), but it is a bold step forward for Pixar in capturing real human emotion. The bright, beautiful balloons may get the the story off the ground, but the story’s heart is what raises Up to a new level.