(Mild spoilers below.)
I was beginning to worry that Pixar had passed its peak. Cars and Wall-E were both, in my opinion, weaker than their directors' previous films. As so many animation directors seem to do their best work early on and then repeat themselves to lesser effect, I wondered if Pete Docter would fall into the same pattern. That isn't the case. It's nice to see that Brad Bird is not the only director at Pixar who is at the top of his game.
Carl Fredricksen and Charles Muntz have both have made commitments to the past. Both are trying to do something they failed to do in their youth. Muntz is trying to prove his discovery of a giant bird and Carl wishes to follow in Muntz's footsteps, exploring a remote area of South America. Carl is the only one of the two to realize that the present is more important than the past and that opening himself up to others is more satisfying than pursuing a solitary goal.
Carl is introduced as a child and a lovely sequence takes us through his married life with Ellie, a girl he meets when both are young and both fans of Muntz. It's essential for showing us that Carl's state of mind after Ellie's death is justified but that he is capable of more. Over the course of the film, he wakes up to the truth.
Charles Muntz is fixated on revenge for being branded a charlatan by the scientific establishment. While he seems to be a scientific genius, his choice is not to engage the world until he can reassert his prominence. He has apparently resorted to murder to prevent others from stealing the glory he feels he is owed. His megalomania never waivers; anyone with the potential to upset his plans becomes an enemy.
Carl's marriage is the basis for the rest of the film. People are at their best when they take others into consideration. Carl forgets this after his wife dies, but learns it anew during the events that follow.
The film beautifully balances humour, adventure and emotion. It has echoes of Winsor McCay's The Flying House and The Wizard of Oz. Unlike Wall-E, it doesn't raise issues that it can't, or won't, resolve. Up has a statement to make and makes it without pulling the film out of shape.
Do I have nits to pick? A few. I wish that Russell had been a girl. Ellie is a wonderful character, but when she leaves the film, there isn't another female in sight except for the bird. Even the dogs are all male. As an exercise, Pixar should start a story off with nothing but female characters and only make them male if the story demands it. That may be the only way there will ever be more than one memorable female in each Pixar film.
I wonder if this film could have been done without a villain? King Vidor said, “You know, villains are few and far between. The drama of life is not dependent on villains. They don’t have to be present to have a story. Divorce, tragedy, sadness, and illness are not dependent on villains.” Miyazaki has made films without villains such as My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service. Up may have been more difficult to write without the convenience of a villain, but it might have been stronger for it.
Charles Muntz's age is treated pretty cavalierly. He's got to be at least 93, and the Teddy Roosevelt reference would make him a minimum of 108. Carl Fredricksen also does some unbelievable things for a 78 year old who uses a cane and who can't climb stairs. We should all be so spry at their ages.
It may be a while before I like a Pixar film as much as this one. While I'm trying to keep an open mind on Toy Story 3, I'm afraid that it's driven more by business than by a story demanding to be told. Cars 2 will be the first Pixar film that I won't bother to see. I can't imagine anything done with those characters that would convince me to give up two hours of my life. For now, Up is enough and it will have to sustain me until somebody can make an animated film as good. It may be a long wait.