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Ann Hornaday on 'Up': Another High Achievement From Pixar

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Pixar's latest animated adventure follows a man who ties thousands of balloons to his home so he can travel to South Africa, but finds he has a stowaway on board. Video by Pixar and Walt Disney Studios

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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 29, 2009

As "WALL E" did last year, the Pixar animated movie "Up" opens with a long, lingering homage to times gone by. We see a young, cherubic boy named Carl Fredricksen gape in wonder in a 1930s movie palace, watching a newsreel about an adventurer with the dash of Valentino and the mustache of Errol Flynn. On his way home from the movies, Carl meets a fellow fan of the daring screen hero, a gap-toothed spitfire named Ellie. And then, moments later, begins the most sublime passage of "Up": a silent four-minute series of scenes that exquisitely capture the couple's young love, marriage, hopes, dreams and heartbreaks, and a sequence worthy of Chaplin in its poignancy and grace.

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Seventy years later, Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) is a boxily built and bespectacled curmudgeon (think Spencer Tracy, circa "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner") who, when his house is threatened by encroaching development, decides to fly the whole rickety shebang to South America by way of thousands of balloons. Accidentally stowing away is an 8-year-old Wilderness Explorer named Russell (newcomer Jordan Nagai), who's been pestering Carl to help him earn a badge for assisting the elderly. Among "Up's" myriad pleasures is watching this unlikely inter-generational friendship take root at a time when pop culture seems to be dominated by snarky 'tween-centric sensibilities and sniffy contempt for all things off-line and unplugged. It's even more satisfying to watch the relationship bloom given its unpromising and very amusing beginning, when Carl continues to slam the door in Russell's face as he delivers his Wilderness Explorer pitch.

These are the moments that make "Up," like all Pixar movies, such a pleasure for adults, who over the years have found themselves quite contentedly watching the studio's movies over and over again on DVD. (And they explain why "Up" made history a few weeks ago as the first animated movie ever to open the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, that red-carpeted cathedral to all things cinematically pure.) Striking a pitch-perfect balance between sentiment, playful humor and action, the film really takes off when Carl and Russell land -- on a South American mesa where they encounter some lively and charismatic creatures, including a brightly plumed bird named Kevin and a dimwitted but lovable dog named Dug.

It turns out Dug is a rogue member of a pack of other dogs, led by a fierce-looking Doberman with a voice straight out of "Alvin and the Chipmunks." (And yes, the dogs in "Up" can talk. They have the technology.) When Carl and Russell finally meet the Doberman's human boss, things get dicey, but "Up's" co-writer and director, Pete Docter, never lets them get too heavy. There is something inherently amusing, after all, about watching two geezers go at it, mano-a-liver-spotted-mano.

Gentle humor abounds in "Up," which takes plenty of cues from classic action-adventure movies, sure, but also great book illustrators like Mary Blair and even those tacky dogs-playing-poker wall hangings. The filmmakers' attention to detail borders on the pathological, from the way Carl's beard grows incrementally over the days to a tag popping out of the back on a supporting character's shirt. Best of all, this stunning, meticulously composed visual world is set to one of the most gorgeous musical scores in recent memory. Composer Michael Giacchino recalls the lushly orchestrated compositions of cinema's golden age with ebullient, waltz-time pieces perfectly suited to Carl and Russell's lofty adventure.

As rich a sensory experience as "Up" is, it finally comes down to the story it has to tell. And that story -- about loneliness, vulnerability and the redemptive power of human connection -- not only makes for a magnificently crafted and absorbing movie, but a deeply meaningful one.

"Up" happens to be Pixar's 10th feature film, and its first foray into 3-D animation. But it succeeds precisely because it hews so faithfully to the aesthetic and narrative virtues that audiences have come to expect from the artists who brought forth such classics as "Toy Story" and "Finding Nemo." In adding 3-D to the mix, they use the technical innovation not for visual stunts or "watch out!" moments, but to add layers upon layers of depth and texture. The result is a beautiful, touching, funny and altogether buoyant movie that lives up to its title in every way possible, delivering a soaring testament to the joys of grounded daily life.

Up (96 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for action and some peril.


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