“The marital sequence is one of the most moving animated episodes ever made. It’s like looking through a family photo album and knowing that every picture represents a crucial moment of experience.” David Denby
“Up,” which begins in the nineteen-thirties, is steeped in the style of that period, with its gee-whiz appreciation of exotic adventure and its worship of heroes who have journeyed to strange, distant places. A little boy, Carl, watches newsreels at a theatre, and sees an explorer, Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), first celebrated then humiliated: no one believes the skeleton of a large flightless bird that Muntz has brought back from South America is authentic. When Carl leaves the theatre, he imagines the newsreel narrator describing his walk home, turning his stepping over a crack in the sidewalk into a vault over a canyon. It’s a gracious moment: the co-directors, Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, who also wrote the screenplay, pay affectionate tribute to daydreaming as a noble and necessary human activity. In dreams begin responsibilities, and in dreams begin movies, too.
A little tomboy, Ellie (Elie Docter, Pete’s daughter), bursts into Carl’s world, and, in a rapid, wordless montage, we see their long life together—wedded bliss and also, painfully, the slow extinction of many hopes, including a desire that they, too, will have great adventures in South America. The marital sequence is one of the most moving animated episodes ever made. It’s like looking through a family photo album and knowing that every picture represents a crucial moment of experience. The doll-like figures only increase the pathos—Ellie, seen deep within the frame, becomes smaller and more and more bent as she sweeps their little house. When she dies, the elderly Carl, now known as Mr. Frederikson (Ed Asner), is left with nothing but a scrapbook, called “My Big Adventure,” which she kept when she was young. Grouchy and cut off—the filmmakers based his snarl and snap on that of a George Booth old guy—he pretends to be more decrepit than he is. When he gets pushed too far, however, he revolts, attaching thousands of helium balloons to his house, which is about to be demolished, and heads, at last, for South America. The house takes off, but with an unwanted stowaway—a chubby little round-faced Wilderness Explorer in shorts, Russell (Jordan Nagai), a version of the youthful Carl. But this boy doesn’t need to dream; he just acts, rolling into trouble. The never-achieved adventure begins. Carl will renew his ties with his dead wife and embrace the child they never had.
“Up” was distributed in both 2-D and 3-D formats. The third dimension lends the characters palpability. Carl has a square, blocky head and a blocky body; the boy has a circular face with a bump for a nose. Neither of them is very big, but they look solid, weighted. When they reach South America, they immediately stumble upon the legendary bird—a gorgeous fantasia of purple and red, with an enormous beak and the flexibility of an Olympic gymnast. It turns out that Muntz has been there for years, hiding out near a gigantic waterfall, trying to catch the creature so that he can restore his reputation. He is aided by a pack of dogs, with thick, damp jowls and snouts. Except for one or two shots, however, Docter and Peterson never exploit the obvious 3-D opportunity of fangs snapping in the viewer’s face. Their use of the technology is relatively chaste; they’re not particularly eager to shock us. They keep their eyes on the story, and on the bond that develops between Carl and Russell. For the filmmakers, 3-D is a narrative tool, which works only if what it is enhancing is strong to begin with. After chases and spills and much scurrying over bare mountain buttes, an intricate fight unfolds in the sky. On one side are Carl and Russell, held aloft in Carl’s house; on the other, Muntz, commanding an enormous dirigible. Russell falls out of the house and winds up clinging to some balloons, and, as he swings from one place to another, you can feel the air around him. Airiness has become a medium to pass through, not just dead space. Animation may be the perfect place for 3-D.