For any run-of-the-mill movie studio, “Up” would represent a major achievement. But this is Pixar we’re talking about — and I would unhesitatingly place “The Incredibles” and “Toy Story 2” on my list of the greatest movies ever made by anyone, anywhere, anytime — and so the standards have to be a little tougher.
As it is, “Up” is certainly a solid B-lister for Pixar; not as great as the studio’s finest, perhaps, but still better than, oh, “Cars” or “A Bug’s Life.” All of which is to say that this new adventure is better than 98 percent of most American animated features. There’s just something about Pixar movies at their best that brings out the demanding Little League dad in me when their output falls just shy of its potential.
Orphans have always played a key role in Disney movies, but this may be the first one to center around a widower — Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner) has recently lost his lifelong best friend Ellie. The two met as children, sharing a love for adventure and the exploits of explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), who took his blimp to South America in the 1930s to find a rare animal.
Carl and Ellie’s lifelong dream was to build a house alongside the South American waterfall where Muntz was headed, but between marriage and home repair and other quotidian priorities, they instead remained inside their cozy little cottage. This backstory is told in a poignant and wordless montage that proves, as does the first half of “WALL-E,” that if anyone is going to revive the silent movie, it’s the folks at Pixar. (OK, and “Brothers Bloom” co-star Rinko Kikuchi.)
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With Ellie gone — and a construction site encroaching upon the Fredricksens’ tiny plot of land — Carl daringly decides to put his entire house aloft with a mass of helium-filled balloons and aim it toward South America. After launching, he realizes that he’s not alone — neighborhood scout Russell (Jordan Nagai), who’s been hanging around Carl’s in the hopes of collecting his “Assisting the Elderly” badge, winds up being an accidental stowaway.
The pair eventually lands in the jungle, roping themselves to the house and trudging through the undergrowth as the balloons lose helium with each passing second. There they encounter an unusual squawking bird whom Russell dubs “Kevin” (even after it’s determined she’s a female), a voicebox-equipped and squirrel-obsessed dog named Dug (Bob Peterson) as well as Muntz himself, who winds up being less nobly heroic than Carl had assumed.
Slideshow: Animated films take flight In the same way that “WALL-E” lost some of its magic when the film left Earth behind for the satellite, “Up” becomes as weighed down by gravity as its heroes do once they’re forced to drag the house around. To make matters worse, the script (by Peterson and Pete Docter, who directed) repeats the big mistake of “Ratatouille” by having the two lead characters have a contrived fight that doesn’t fit the story but does conveniently set up the big final conflict.
Ultimately, these are minor flaws. For most of its running time, “Up” is sheer delight, from the witty voice performances to Michael Giacchino’s goosebump-inducing score to a stellar running gag involving the mean dog Alpha (Peterson again) and his malfunctioning voice machine.
I suspect the image of the tiny house held aloft by thousands of multi-colored balloons will become an iconic one. Let it also be a reminder to the artists at Pixar that they’ve raised the bar very high indeed, making it all the more noticeable when they occasionally dip toward the ground.
Follow msnbc.com Movie Critic Alonso Duralde at http://www.twitter.com/MSNBCalonso.
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