Up was about as well-received as a movie can be when it was released earlier this year. A look online at overall scores for Pixar's tenth feature-length film shows impressive numbers: a roundup of 37 professional movie critic reviews compiled by Metacritic.com shows an average score of just under 90% and 300+ reader reviews give the same average grade, while Up's IMDB.com page shows a whopping 58,000+ readers delivered a median score of 8.5/10. So what is it I'm missing here? As with all of Pixar's work, the visuals are stunning, yet I found myself left at the end of the movie with a feeling of disappointment, that what promised to be something on par with the best of the studio's work (Toy Story and its sequel, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo and Wall-E) instead left the ho-hum impression of the middling A Bug's Life or Monsters, Inc. At least we didn't get another Cars or Ratatouille (the latter being another Pixar film whose universal acclaim totally mystified me).
The plot: lonely widower Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner) decides to fulfill the childhood dream, shared with his late wife, of traveling off to South America's mystical Paradise Falls, following in the footsteps of adventurer/hero Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer). Carl was a balloon salesman, which inspires the idea of transporting his beloved longtime home (in danger of being overrun by the persistence of urban sprawl) via thousands of helium balloons. A hyperactive child named Russell (voiced by newcomer Jordan Nagai), who has persistently visited Carl's house in hopes of offering assistance as a means of earning a merit badge, unwittingly becomes Carl's travel partner. When they reach South America we're introduced to a rare mystical bird (which Russell names "Kevin") and a pack of dogs that are hunting the bird, with the canines outfitted with translators on their collars that voice their thoughts and barks as English. The misfit of the dog group is named Dug, who befriends the travellers. Munce turns out to be alive and the man behind the talking dog collars, with the capture of the elusive bird appearing to be his one goal left in life. And not to quibble too much about the plausibilities within an animated film set up on the fantastical premise of an old man flying a house with balloons, but how is it that we see boyhood Carl watching black and white newsreels involving a 40-ish year old looking Munce and when they meet about 75 years later (revealing that shouldn't spoil anything for you) Munce only looks to be in his 80's?
Again, the movie is visually absolutely breathtaking. At this point, Pixar has set such a high standard for CGI animation that one wonders how much further they can improve on it (one theatrical version played in 3-D, but by all accounts it didn't overwhelmingly enhance the experience...many people who saw it commented along the lines of it being slightly more impressive without being intrusive). Whether it's subtle details like the fuzz on the tennis balls at the bottom of Carl's walker, or the fuzz actually on Carl's face as he neglects to shave as his adventure unfolds, it all looks amazingly, painstakingly tended to. The scene where Carl and Russell reach their destination had me reaching for the remote to freeze frame the beautiful view on my TV screen.
The secondary characters and flat story arc end up deflating the lofty levels reached by Up's visual artists (you knew there was going to be at least one balloon metaphor dropped in here somewhere). Asner is perfectly cast as the Lou Grant-like cranky Carl, and Nagai and Plummer are serviceable enough in their voice roles, but the pickings get thin after that. The talking dogs occasionally amuse, though they tend to annoy after awhile. And the bird? I couldn't have cared less about it.
I give Pixar credit for attaining such critical and financial success for a movie centred on a crotchety, septuagenarian protagonist - on paper it looks like a bit of a hard sell. Director Pete Docter and co-director Bob Peterson (who also wrote the movie along with Thomas McCarthy) unfortunately fall short of delivering a story and supporting cast that engages the heart as much as our eyes, save for a moving four minute montage set to a waltzing score by Michael Giacchino that wordlessly looks back on Carl's life with his wife. It's a standout moment in an otherwise letdown of a movie.