These days, Pixar stands alone in being a reliable source for “family” entertainment that doesn’t leave any quarters cringing. It’s for this reason, perhaps, that I recoil whenever anyone self-identifies as a “Pixar dork”—as if it were unusual to appreciate something that’s both critically acclaimed and gobbled up by the masses. That peculiarly self-serving form of self-effacement aside, Pixar deserves its crown—and Up is a jewel that shines brightly, partly because its peculiarities give it an all-the-more colorful glow.
What’s Up? Well, it begins with a newsreel about explorer/adventurer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer); he’s the hero of an introverted young fan named Carl (Edward Asner) and his girlfriend Ellie (Elie Docter), but his obsession with finding an extinct bird in Paradise Falls, South America, has left him discredited. Carl and Ellie grow up and get married—sixty-odd years pass via a quickie montage—and they save up to venture to Paradise Falls, but never make it. They can’t have children, and advance to old age together, but Ellie dies, leaving Carl an embittered oldster, unwilling to let go of her memory, or even their house (which has become an obstruction to a construction site).
In a fit, Carl canes a man who tampers with the mailbox that he and Ellie installed years before, and is resigned to a retirement home; but he has another trick up his sleeve: He inflates hundreds of balloons from his chimney, and flies the house toward South America. He did not, however, account for a stowaway: a chinless Asian blimp-boy named Russell (Jordan Nagai) who needs to assist a senior to attain his final merit badge. When they finally reach the continent, Carl wants to give Russell change for the bus ride home (that’ll require a lot of transfers, Russell notes), but the house crash-lands across from the falls. Carl needs the boy’s help to drag the house across before its balloons deflate and it becomes sedentary.
On the way, they encounter a big, variegated bird that Russell nicknames “Kevin,” and Dug (Bob Peterson), a dog assigned to track and capture the bird. Dug, like the rest of his pack, is equipped to speak by his mysterious master, and he sputters on dopily with occasional breaks to say, “Squirrel!” Crotchety old Carl wants to have nothing to do with the animals, though Russell quickly befriends them. Kevin is the bird of Muntz’s obsession, and the canine hunters are his henchmen, but their master has gone Ahab—and Muntz’s monomania about clearing his name makes him the villain of the picture. In order to win out, Carl must shed himself of his own idée fixe: He must let his wife and childhood fantasy go, and take responsibility for both Russell (who is, of course, neglected by his own father) and the critters.