Up, the tenth feature film from Pixar Animation Studios, is a swashbuckling, continent-hopping adventure and an under-stated, nuanced psychodrama. It's an outlandish, wildly creative fantasy and an almost devastatingly poignant piece of realism. It's laugh-out-loud funny and try-to-hide-your-sobs moving. Like the balloons that propel its plot, Up floats seemingly effortlessly into whatever cinematic territory it pleases, gently tugging its audience along for a delightful, perspective-changing ride.

The film centers on the oddest of couples. Carl Fredricksen (voiced with gruff perfection by Ed Asner) is a 78-year-old retired balloon salesman mourning the recent loss of his wife, Ellie. Grief, age, and unfulfilled dreams have made him more than a little grumpy, and the fact that urban developers are tearing down his neighborhood (and itching to raze his beloved home) is not helping matters.

Young Carl and Ellie

Young Carl and Ellie

Russell (Jordan Nagai) is a portly, bespectacled 8-year-old who lives to acquire Wilderness Explorer badges but has never actually been in the wild. If he can only earn his "assist the elderly" badge, he will progress from Junior to Senior Explorer. He knocks on Carl's front door in hopes of helping him cross the street (or yard, or … anything), but Carl is in no mood to be assisted and sends the boy away badge-less.

When court officials rule Carl must move to a retirement home, he makes a bold decision. In honor of a lifelong dream he and Ellie shared to travel to a South American landmark, he ties thousands of helium balloons to his house and lifts off on a journey to "Paradise Falls." It's not until he is irrevocably on his way that he discovers young Russell on his front porch and realizes he has an unwanted travel partner.

It's up, up, and away for Carl and Russell

It's up, up, and away for Carl and Russell

Carl and Russell land near Paradise Falls and make a series of exciting discoveries. They are greeted by dogs who wear high tech collars that translate their thoughts into language, and the audience is treated throughout the movie to the hysterical interior life of canines.  ("I have just met you, but I love you.") They also discover a huge, multi-colored, extremely rare bird. She is awkward and delightfully expressive; Russell names her "Kevin." 

Eventually, Carl and Russell encounter Carl's boyhood hero, Charles Muntz (voiced with sinister aplomb by Christopher Plummer), a now disgraced explorer (even older than Carl) who is living in the region and villainously obsessed with capturing the bird. Various forms of conflict ensue, including one terrific sequence in which Carl and Charles do battle senior-style, using canes and dentures as weapons.

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Kevin, Russell, Dug, and Carl on their adventure

Kevin, Russell, Dug, and Carl on their adventure

Along the way, Carl and Russell also make some interior (but no less monumental) discoveries. Despite their seventy-year age difference, they have much more in common than they first realize. Both of them have unfulfilled dreams of adventure, both of them are lonely, and both of them need each other.

Director Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.) and screenplay writer and co-director Bob Peterson (Finding Nemo) manage to mine great depths of emotion from the lives and needs of their two heroes without falling into maudlin or saccharine territory. A five-minute, wordless montage near the beginning of the film (reminiscent of the head-turning extended dialogue-free portion of Pixar's previous film, Wall-E) tells the story of Carl and Ellie's life together simply and exquisitely. It's a jaw-dropping piece of filmmaking, and Up only gets deeper, funnier, more exciting and more moving from there.

The pathos in the movie is rooted not only in the loss of a loved one, but also in the death of dreams. Carl and Ellie's deferred hopes included children and the desire to travel, both of which are finally, bittersweetly fulfilled for Carl in Ellie's absence. But his adventure with Russell and a gift Ellie left behind help him do much more than check items off his "bucket list." Carl begins to realize that all the little interruptions that kept a husband and wife grounded at home were the stuff of dreams, because they added up to a life of love.

Hero-become-villain Charles Muntz

Hero-become-villain Charles Muntz

While most movies aimed at kids and families beat the "Go for your dreams!" mantra to death, Up dares to suggest that the dreams we defer—and the reasons we defer them—might matter more in the end. Halfway through the movie, Russell speaks wistfully of the times he used to spend with his now-distant father. "The funny thing is, it's the boring stuff I miss the most," he confesses. This idea—that it's the details we often overlook that actually count most of all—animates every frame of Up.

Even with their first foray into 3-D, Docter and his team handle Up's animation with graceful restraint. The film bursts with vivid color and fluid action, but it's the subtle things—the way Carl's stubble grows in or what we learn about his character through the creases around his eyes—that help make Up arguably the most elegant of all the Pixar films. The filmmakers use 3-D technology to render the movie visually richer and deeper, but they avoid the "make-'em-duck" gimmickry that has made other 3D offerings wearisome. As a result, the 3-D option is enjoyable but not essential, and some film aficionados are arguing that the brighter bulbs used in 2-D projection are more important to appreciating Up's beauty.

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Completely satisfying animation, gorgeous set-design—everything works in Up. At a snappy 89 minutes, the pace moves along quickly enough to keep kids engaged without resorting to the sort of frenetic, rapid-fire hodgepodge of jokes and pop culture references that less accomplished filmmakers use to hide their insecurity. Michael Giacchino's understated score hits all the right highs and lows, and is especially effective in conveying Carl's elderly urgency in chase scenes when his body forces him to plod rather than race.

Ultimately, though, it's the story, as in all of Pixar's offerings, that makes Up a masterpiece. The characters are indelible, the humor organic, the adventure original, and the theme profound. Funny thing is, it's the details you'll remember the most.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Carl seemed to want to be left alone, but in reality he was very lonely. Do you know anyone who withdraws but probably needs a friend? What is the best way to handle that situation?

  2. Can you think of a time when being forced to defer a dream actually turned out to be a good thing? What did you learn from that situation

  3. Dreams are important, but Charles Muntz's obsession with his own dream eventually made him crazy. What is the difference between a dream and an idol? How can we tell?

  4. Discuss the relationship between Carl and Russell. What was each of them missing before they found each other? What did each of them find in the other?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Up is rated PG for mild peril and action. The action scenes are roughly as frightening for young children as those in Finding Nemo or Monsters, Inc., although, different from those movies, the death of one person and several dogs is implied (they are seen falling, but their landing is not shown). The adult situations Carl faces (losing his wife and being forced to move to a retirement home) may be disturbing for some children, but the material is handled subtly enough that it's likely to go over the heads of the very young.

What other Christian critics are saying:
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  2. Crosswalk
  3. Catholic News Service
  4. Past the Popcorn

Our Rating
4 Stars - Excellent
Average Rating
(36 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG (for some peril and action)
Directed By
Pete Docter, Bob Peterson
Run Time
1 hour 36 minutes
Edward Asner, Jordan Nagai, John Ratzenberger
Theatre Release
May 29, 2009 by Walt Disney Studio
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