Up once again shows that when it comes to mainstream 3D animation, there’s Pixar and then there’s everybody else. Or to put it differently, the only studio not trying to be Pixar is Pixar itself.
People sometimes ask me why I like anime so much, and though I’ve mentioned in the past that to an extent it is a very personal thing independent of average level of quality in anime, there are still certain recurring traits that keep me coming back: emotional sincerity, respect towards the viewer, respect towards the medium itself, the ability to take simple premises and elevate them. Up manages to fulfill all of these and more. That is of course not to say that the reason Up is good is because it’s “like anime,” because it really isn’t, but its approach and understanding that even for a kids’ movie (or perhaps especially for a kids’ movie) not everything has to fall neatly into place remind me very much of the reasons why I got into and continue to enjoy animation. You can do so much when you’re not limited by reality, and to understand that is to understand that what I just said applies well beyond the visual aspect of animation.
Like Wall-E, Up is a very emotional movie which dares to use a hero that is not just unusual because of the way they look, but because of how the entertainment industry has restricted the roles of certain character types. In the case of Up it is Carl Fredricksen, an old man who used to sell balloons who decides to use his remaining stock to float his house to South America to fulfill a lifelong promise. He inadvertently brings along a young boy scout analogue named Russell, an eager but physically inept boy.
Carl’s curmudgeonly demeanor masks the fact that he was once a wide-eyed but shy boy dreaming of fun and adventure (somewhat similar to young Russell), as well as a man who was very much in love. It’s a mask that we are allowed to peer behind throughout the movie, giving Carl a very strong presence in every scene he’s in. We can see in his current attitude and actions the life he has led up to that point. His interactions with Russell show how easy it is to perceive the elderly as distanced from the rest of society, as well as how incorrect that notion often can be. Carl is an interesting and deep character, and I do not use the word “deep” lightly. He moved me, moved me to tears and smiles and left a deep impression.
Placing an elderly man in the main role of a movie animated or otherwise is a bold move in an entertainment industry which tends to devalue the elderly. Even when they are featured prominently in movies, they are usually placed in teacher roles, or meant to be comically cranky old men. While there’s been a recent trend for older main stars in movies as Hollywood’s big names realize their years are catching up on them (e.g. Sylvester Stallone in Rocky Balboa), most often the message these movies send is “check us out, we can still hang with the young guys.” Up however is different. Carl Fredricksen is not an old man trying to play a young man’s game. He is doing what he feels is necessary precisely because he’s old. There is no denial, there is no shame.
While I said that the movie’s strengths go well beyond the visual, there is no denying that the movie also looks good. Its style is something that I think registers with everyone no matter your age. It’s bright and colorful without bombarding the viewer and overwhelming the retinas. Character designs and backgrounds, are soft without seeming entirely innocuous. The overall three-dimensional design is of course excellent, as expected of Pixar, and if you decide to watch it with 3-D glasses, Up never overwhelms you with shots designed to tell you JUST HOW 3-D THIS MOVIE IS, unlike many other 3-D movies. The use of recurring symbols in Up is also excellent in a way that I rarely see from movies. This is not abstract symbolism, but rather the movie establishing the significance of small but emotionally precious objects, and whenever these objects are referred to or used in any way you know how much weight is put behind them, much like anything Carl says or does.
Up is exactly what a family movie should be, in the sense that it is not just a family movie. Go by yourself, go with your friends, go with your kids or your parents. It’s an intelligent movie which respects the intelligence, both mental and emotional, of its audience, and engages them with such sincerity and power that anyone who sees the movie will feel like they’ve come away from the movie well-rewarded. It will be a reward well-earned because it is almost impossible to feel like an idle observer with Up.