Pixar’s been raising the bar so high for so long that excellence is just taken for granted, and to be honest, it’s settled into kind of a comfortable predictability. It’s always going to be great, it’s most likely going to make you cry, and it goes without saying that the visuals will be absolutely perfect. They’ve proven that they can tell any story they want now, and even that they can tell a solid, moving story each time. They’re now in the unenviable position of having to do better than “excellent” and make something genuinely transcendent.
The first 20 or so minutes of Wall-E achieved that, before settling back into being a really good movie. I think Up hits that level within the first few minutes and then (almost) never lets up. Its scale, scope, and cast are smaller than other Pixar movies, and its storyline is more straightforward. But where it rises above excellence is in how all the parts work in conjunction with each other, and how (almost) none of it feels forced or calculated.
Up is a truly character driven-story, possibly Pixar’s first, because Carl is their first completely realized character. He’s not just “the curmudgeonly old man,” he’s not just the protagonist, he’s not overwhelmed by his voice actor (Ed Asner’s performance is so perfect that you almost immediately forget it’s Ed Asner), and he’s not just a stand-in for some universal concept like “the overprotective father” or “the need to belong.” Every time his character could get pulled too far in one direction, something comes along to push him a different way or show some other aspect of his character. We see his entire life story, we know who he is, and we always know why he’s doing what he does.
That’s the movie’s greatest achievement. The fact that it’s an outstanding adventure story — and it’s possibly the downright funniest Pixar movie to date — are just extra. The other characters don’t come through as well-rounded as Carl: Russell is kind of a stand-in for every child. And the villain goes from “interesting obstacle” to full-on, completely evil super-villain so quickly it seems frustratingly unrealistic, which is the movie’s only major fault. But even that isn’t too damning, because this is Carl’s story, and it keeps all of the focus on him.
Of course, it could be just that I loved the movie because I love dogs, and Dug looks a lot like my dog Paddy.
I saw it in 3D, which I’d highly recommend to anyone who hasn’t seen it yet. Not because the 3D was particularly great — it was perfectly well-done, adding depth to every scene without overwhelming anything — but because it’s nice wearing big glasses if you’re at all self-conscious about crying in public. I’d been warned that the first 10 or 15 minutes of Up were tear-jerking; I didn’t know that I was going to be crying throughout. Not just at the sad scenes, but the funny ones: there were long stretches where you couldn’t hear the dialogue because everyone in the theater was laughing too hard. It seems unfair that the same movie could have so many sequences that are that genuinely moving and so many moments that are genuinely hilarious.