About midway through Up, the new animated film from Pixar, I stepped outside the movie for a moment and realized just how bizarre it is: An old man, tied via a garden hose to a house held aloft by helium balloons, is leading a garrulous Asian-American Boy Scout through a surreal South American landscape, pursued by a dog with a talking collar and an endangered female bird named Kevin. Looked at from some remove, the movie sounds like a deliberately zany kids' cartoon, a digitally rendered version of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. But that's the thing; the viewer of Up doesn't experience it from any such remove. Up is as psychologically realist as any adult drama starring flesh-and-bone actors. The question of whether, and how, this motley cohort will reach their destination has as much dramatic value as the question of who will get on the plane at the end of Casablanca.
In a prologue set in the 1930s, two children, Carl and Ellie, form a club based on their shared love for travel and adventure. Both kids worship an Indiana Jones-style scientist named Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer), whose globe-trotting adventures are seen in a priceless mock newsreel. Carl and Ellie grow up to marry and have a long, happy life together—all of which we see compressed into a dialogue-free montage that's less than five minutes long and elicits tears as efficiently as if a cloud of mace had been released into the theater.
Ellie dies without ever having made it to Paradise Falls, the South American waterfall that was the couple's dream destination. Carl, now in his 70s and voiced by Edward Asner, retreats into depression, isolating himself in the pastel-painted house he and Ellie once shared, while a modern city grows up around him. On the day that he's scheduled to be evicted and sent to an old folks' home, Carl ties thousands of helium balloons to his chimney and takes to the skies, house and all.
Once you've accepted the idea of a helium-powered wooden house as navigable aircraft, it's easy to believe that Carl finds an unwelcome stowaway on his porch, 8-year-old wilderness scout Russell (Jordan Nagai), and that the two manage to steer the vessel to a spot in view of Paradise Falls. This spectacular waterfall (seemingly modeled on Venezuela's Angel Falls) drops hundreds of feet down sheer cliffs in a bare landscape reminiscent of the terrain through which Wile E. Coyote chases the Road Runner. In the movie's Beckett-ian middle section, the gloomy Carl and the irrepressibly chatty Russell make their slow and painful way through this landscape toward the falls. As they proceed, the balloons slowly lose altitude, and the house starts to weigh on Carl with all the heaviness of grief.
I'll leave you to find out what happens to the travelers after that. But it's worth noting that the talking dog collar, which translates what passes for canine thought into human language, is the source of the movie's best gags, none of which would work on paper. They're too dependent on character and context, not to mention the vocal stylings of Bob Peterson, who provides the voice for Dug, the dimwitted dog—and who also co-wrote and co-directed the movie with Monsters Inc.'s Pete Docter.
What's marvelous about Up is how confidently it assumes the audience will smartly follow wherever it wants to take us. A climactic showdown aboard a giant blimp, an old man paging through the scrapbook of his dead wife—both moments are equally worthy of our attention and of the filmmakers' meticulous care.
The tone of Up is tender but never mawkish, thanks in no small part to a delicate score by Michael Giacchino. Giacchino is fast becoming my favorite living film composer. He did the soundtracks for The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and the new Star Trek, all of which combine a gift for pastiche with an unironic emotional directness. *Up is Pixar's most ambitious attempt yet to take animation to higher (and deeper) places than it's been before, and Giacchino's sprightly music keeps the whole thing, impossibly, aloft.
Slate V: The critics on Up and other new movies
Correction, May 29, 2009: The sentence originally stated that Michael Giacchino wrote the music for Wall-E. Thomas Newman was the composer on that film. (Return to the corrected sentence.)