First of all, Up is not a movie about a cranky old coot who, with the help of a roly-poly Boy Scout, finds his inner child during a series of magical adventures experienced from the front porch of a dilapidated manse held aloft by hundreds of helium-filled balloons. Such, of course, is the perception advanced by promotional materials, which sell short the richness and soulfulness of the latest Pixar picture, the first American animated offering ever to open le Festival de Cannes.
That is not to fault the trailer, loaded with pretty pictures and pratfalls intended to woo the wee ones — like a certain giggly, giddy five-year-old living in my house for whom the preview was already "the best movie ever made." But it doesn't prepare you for the actual moviegoing experience, the emotional punch of Up's first few minutes, when it presents the most heartfelt — the most sincere — love story in recent memory: the love between a boy and a girl, who become a man and a woman, who become a husband and a wife, who become a widower and a memory that haunts the rest of what follows. The first ten minutes of Up are flawless; the final eighty minutes, close enough. (Though, this note: Do not see Up in 3-D. It's inessential to the telling of this deeply felt tale and altogether distracting.)
The movie begins in a theater, with young Carl Fredricksen, through aviator goggles, reveling in the black-and-white newsreel adventures of the thrill-seeking Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer), for whom "Adventure is out there!" Through happenstance, little Carl (voiced, barely, by Jeremy Leary) soon meets fellow traveler Ellie (Elie Docter), and, with her, sets out on an adventure that will last the rest of his life — a journey that includes crushing blows (Ellie can't have children) and modest highs (the simple joy of renovating a decaying house till it becomes a Technicolor dream home). The would-be world travelers stay at home till Ellie's final breath, restless but content just to be with each other — in other words, Revolutionary Road, but with love. (And with less blabbing. Grown-up Carl and Ellie communicate each tenderness with little more than a smile, a frown, a teardrop, a kiss. No words.) Had Up ended after those first few minutes, that would have been enough for some; at a recent preview screening, you could hear the adults sniffle. But behind me, a little girl asked her grandfather with great apprehension, "Is that the end of the movie?" She clearly hoped not.
Rest assured, it gets funny — the talking dog voiced by writer and co-director Bob Peterson transcends the hackneyed convention of animated films. And it's thrilling, too, as the third act takes place almost entirely in the sky, atop the mammoth zeppelin piloted by Muntz, who, as it turns out, has been in self-exile in South America, where he's gone in search of a mythical bird whose existence he's been trying to prove for decades at the expense of his sanity. (The movie even suggests that Muntz, living in a cave with only a pack of dogs as his company, has murdered other explorers on the hunt to claim his prize.)
But despite its title, Up is decidedly earthbound: The elderly Carl (voiced by Ed Asner, though he looks decidedly like a glum Hal Holbrook) spends almost the entire movie schlepping his house across the South American landscape his wife had always hoped to visit. Carl is literally tethered to a memory, an anchor with a garden hose wrapped around his torso to keep his home from floating away. And he's kept company by an accidental intruder: Russell (Jordan Nagai), an even more awkward version of the youthful Carl.
The two are meant for each other: the husband without a wife, the son without a father, each in desperate need of companionship and adventure lest they disappear. They both find comfort in memories most would consider mundane — sitting on a curb eating ice cream with a father while counting cars as they pass by, or sitting in a comfortable chair next to a loved one on a sunny afternoon. Their motto: "The boring stuff is the stuff I remember the most." Perhaps they should have titled this one The Invisibles, if only because Down doesn't have quite the same zip.
Perhaps by now, all of this sounds so unbearably sad and undeniably grown-up, but only because it is. Pixar movies have been moving in this direction for years — adult animation sprinkled with just enough shenanigans to entertain the kids while we get our weep on. Consider the protagonists: adults stuck in the middle and on their way further down, but trying like hell to claw their way back up. Monsters, Inc., directed by Up co-director Pete Docter, was about mid-level drones sick of their jobs; The Incredibles, superheroes sick of suburban mediocrity; Ratatouille, a rat escaping the filthy sewer for a five-star kitchen. To that estimable lot add Carl, who waited till he was alone and at the end of his life to discover how much living was left to be done.