Depending on what you think of "Cars," Pixar makes it either 9Â½ out of 10 or 10 for 10 with "Up," a captivating odd-couple adventure that becomes funnier and more exciting as it flies along. Tale of an unlikely journey to uncharted geographic and emotional territory by an old codger and a young explorer could easily have been cloying, but instead proves disarming in its deep reserves of narrative imagination and surprise, as well as its poignant thematic balance of dreams deferred and dreams fulfilled. Lack of overtly fantastical elements might endow "Up" with a somewhat lower initial must-see factor than some summer releases. But like all of Pixar's features, this one will enjoy a rewardingly long ride in all venues and formats. Pete Docter's picture has the privilege of being the first animated film to open the Cannes Film Festival, on May 13.
The two leading men are 78 and 8 years old, and the age range of those who will appreciate the picture is even a bit wider than that. Like previous classic films about escape from the mundane, from "The Wizard of Oz" to "Wall-E" and many in between, "Up" is universal in its appeal. At the same time, it may be the most subtle Pixar production to date in its use of color schemes, shapes, proportions, scale, contrast and balance, factors highlighted by the application of 3-D, which will be available at many initial engagements.
The ghost of Chaplin hovered over "Wall-E," and although "Up" is a more talkative film, it also delves back into earlier eras for inspiration. The first thing on view is a mock '30s-style black-and-white Movietone newsreel documenting the exploits of maverick explorer Charles Muntz, who heads back to South America to redeem himself after a giant bird skeleton he presents in the U.S. is denounced as a fraud.
Not long after comes an exquisite interlude that, in less than five minutes, encapsulates the life-long love affair between Carl Fredericksen and his wife Ellie in a manner worthy of even the most poetic of silent-film directors. The two were brought together by their mutual enthusiasm for Muntz, and it remained Ellie's lifelong dream to emulate the adventurer and travel to Paradise Falls in South America.
But life has other plans, and Ellie must settle for a happy life with balloon-seller Carl (voiced by Ed Asner). When she dies, she leaves behind a scrapbook as well as a very grumpy widower, who retreats into self-enforced exile. With heavy-rimmed black glasses, thick white hair and eyebrows, bulbous nose, square jaw and a scrunched body that looks like it's been through a compactor, old Carl resembles a cross between Spencer Tracy and Walter Matthau at the ends of their careers. He wants no company, content to live out his days in the house he shared with Ellie, which becomes surrounded by giant construction projects.
Finally faced with eviction, Carl concocts a plan. In a surprising and brilliantly visual sequence, thousands of colored balloons hatch from behind the house, prying it from its foundation and carrying it skyward; Carl intends to fly it to South America, fulfilling Ellie's dream.
However, he's got an unplanned passenger in the form of Russell (Jordan Nagai), a roly-poly, eager-beaver Junior Wilderness Explorer who's previously tried to enlist the old goat's help to win him a badge. The trip goes uneventfully - no time wasted on navigational challenges - the better to quickly achieve the destination. The arrival is stunningly portrayed, with thick fog clearing to reveal bizarre rock formations atop a mesa adjacent to the falls (designs were inspired by Angel Falls, the world's highest, and the actual tepui mountains around the juncture of Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana - the location of Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Lost World"). Carl and Russell quickly come upon the very sort of rare bird Muntz went back to find decades before, a brilliantly plumed, gawky 13-footer t