It's nice to see a company maintain a certain level of quality. All too often, executives and marketing folks slowly erode companies by directing their resources away from quality entertainment and toward ubiquitous and sometimes inexplicable, marketing campaigns designed to bedazzle the greatest possible number of people into the theater on opening weekend. (Remember the "Wolverine" pizza from Papa John's? What was that about?)
"Up" represents Pixar's opposite philosophy. While the film had prerelease marketing, the public wasn't beaten over the head with it every time we turned around. There were no Old Man Carl Floating Chicken Nuggets, nor were there Dug the Dog Communicator Collars included with Happy Meals or any of the other products aimed at the nation's hapless preteens. One suspects Pixar's marketing people just know a good movie doesn't need any gimmicks.
"Up" is the story of recently widowed Carl Fredrickson (voiced by Ed Asner, "Elf"). Carl's wife passed away before fulfilling her dreams of adventure in the wilds of South America. Now 78, bereft, alone and facing forced residence at a "retirement village," Carl hatches a crazy, screw-it-I've-got-nothing-to-lose plan.
If you've seen the movie's trailer, you know Carl attaches thousands of helium-filled balloons to his house and takes off into the sky. On his way to the land of alpacas and Andes mints, Carl discovers Russell (newcomer Jordan Nagai) cowering on his porch. Russell is part of a fictional, Boy Scout-equivalent organization, and he's trying to get his last activity patch for "helping the elderly." Carl is displeased, and he attempts to turn around and take Russell home. But they get sucked in a storm and whisked away to the remote mountains of Venezuela.
Once there, the duo picks up a giant tropical bird that Russell names Kevin, and a dog named Dug (voiced by co-director and writer Bob Peterson) who has an electronic collar that allows him to speak. Carl, whose basic plan was to die in South America among his memories of Ellie, becomes increasingly frustrated with the complications and entanglements his adventure encounters. When it turns out he's not the only adventurer in the region, things become urgent and Carl's priorities shift from finding a place to die to making sure Russell, Kevin and Dug live to see another day.
"Up" is an almost-perfect blend of plot and character. The first 10 to 15 minutes of the movie are spent introducing us to Carl and his wife through a nearly dialogue-free montage of their life together. What follows in nearly all fast-moving action that, without the opening section to help us like and care about Carl, would be all flash-and-bang.
Peterson and his co-director Pete Docter ("Monsters, Inc.") " seem to understand that although they're working in a purely special effects-based medium, special effects are not compelling or even very entertaining without an emotional connection to the characters.