Summertime, and the giddy feeling theoretically attached to the season, arrives early thanks to Hollywood’s pro-active release calendar. The first wave of blockbuster titles milked the sci-fi/action cow. And last week’s arrival of the eagerly anticipated new Pixar animated blockbuster, Up, ups the ante in the family/fantasy genre, high-tech animation division.
Like previous dazzlers out of the Pixar think tank, especially Ratatouille and last year’s unreasonably good WALL-E, Up manages to be many things for many people. An inventive narrative design, nonetheless grounded in cozy traditions of fantasy storytelling values, grabs hold of us, and works in concert with the bedazzlement of ever-advancing computer animation technology (including, in some theaters, a digital 3-D effect, which can be as distracting and image-dulling as it is experience-enhancing).
The extravagance and fluid visual feel of the film will impress animation geeks and actual children among us. The cast of characters themselves is culled from the darkened corners of underserved humanity in movies. A sad but determined (and block-head shaped) 78-year-old widower (voiced by Edward Asner), a chubby Asian boy wiser than his years, a trusty talking dog, and a coveted tropical bird find themselves aloft in an old house powered by helium balloons and headed to a dream location in South America to honor our protagonist’s late wife. In the tension-fueling foe role, we have none other than the sonorous voice of Christopher Plummer as Charles Muntz, an endangered species hunter armed with bad karma and a pack of dogs equipped with digital-voice boxes (including, in one of the film’s funnier bits, a prissy-voiced Doberman in need of a reboot).
Watching Up, we can’t help but think of the big-screen adaptation of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach and Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon, films about seeking escape from grimmer land-locked realities by being airborne. But Up carves out its own new niche in the annals of animation. Director Pete Docter-who also worked on WALL-E, Monsters, Inc., and the Toy Story franchise-understands the challenge and the high expectations of Pixar films, and delivers again. Part of the Pixar trick lies in juggling timeless story values and the showing off of digital technology in seamless, subtle ways. This time around, the core theme of the tale has to do with the perils and failures of technology, as in WALL-E. Here, an elderly man conquers urban encroachment on his property by taking flight via balloon power.