Review: Pixar’s ‘Up’ – The First Great Film of 2009

There is something about the craft of great storytelling, the truly magical nature of a tale so perfectly executed that just grabs the heart strings of its audience and never lets go. It’s rare, but something we should be used to from Pixar.
By  · Published on May 28th, 2009

There is something about the craft of great storytelling, the truly magical nature of a tale so perfectly executed that just grabs the heart strings of its audience and never lets go. In the modern world of film, this kind of story seems to be a rare breed, the kind that only comes around once in a great while. To quote a wise man, they just don’t make them like they used to — the big, beautiful tales that spoke to the reality and beauty of the human experience. So when such a tale is committed to celluloid, it is important to take a moment to stop and take note. To stop and smell the rosy scent of a well crafted story and allow it to seep in and move you.

Such is the case with the 10th film from the storytelling wizards from Emeryville, California, the men and women of Pixar Animation Studios. With Up — the simple story of an aging man named Carl Fredrickson — they have delivered their most beautiful tale. It is their first truly touching human story, one that deals with love and loss and all of those inherent things that represent the ups and downs of life.

The story begins in the childhood of Carl (voiced by Ed Asner), whose love of adventure leads him to meet a spunky young girl named Ellie. And in the first 20 minutes — a sequence that could easily be removed from this film and win an Oscar on its own — we watch Carl and Ellie live out their lives, plan for adventures that never seem to come and eventually grow old together. Cue the part where even a large, manly man such as myself begins to weep as the story begins to take root. It is the kind of evocative story that is reminiscent of the silent era — when storytellers could draw out emotions so deep without any dialog at all.

The story of Carl and Ellie may only be the prologue to the fun adventure that is at the heart of Up, but it is significant in that it shows us who Carl really is. We know his life story, and we are instantly able to connect and understand that he’s not just another cranky old man. He’s a lovable man who has suffered great loss, and now he’s left to find his own way in the wilderness.

Of course, Carl’s way is the most grand of all. As suited developers try to take away his home, he plots his swift escape by tying thousands of balloons to his home. Allowing him to simply float away in search of the great adventures that he and Ellie had always promised to have together. The only problem is that he’s also the proud captain of a flying two-story Victorian and a stowaway wilderness explorer named Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai). Together they head out into the wild where an amazing adventure awaits, filled with diabolical explorers, wild and untamed animals and yes, even a few talking dogs.

What makes this film, which is the second directorial work from Pete Docter (Monsters Inc.), work so well is its story, which I believe I’ve spent more than enough time on. Its beautiful, that’s a fact — lets move on, shall we? Beyond that we are presented with characters so infinitely lovable that it should be outlawed. Ed Asner breathes life into Carl in a way that only he can, giving an unexpected charm to the curmudgeon. The character of Russell is fun, a very every-child who is ready to take on the world but isn’t without his own problems at home. The two have such unmistakable chemistry that it’s easy to forget that these are animated characters in a children’s movie.

In fact, the film has such depth that it almost has to have the silly moments that remind us that we’re watching a film meant for the little ones. And even those moments — everything from the dogs with collars that allow them to talk to the film’s lone poop joke — are so meticulously planned and perfectly executed that they fit perfectly into this wonderfully sweet story. For example, in the first exchange between crabby Carl and Russell, we watch as the old man sends the endearingly annoying little guy in search of a Snipe. And even though he’s shooing him away with a series of old man quips, we can see a glimmer of affection. It is moments like this one, scattered all along the trail of this wild adventure, that represent a commitment to building this grand story upon a foundation of small, heartfelt moments.

And as with almost every Pixar movie, the technical side of Up is equally as impressive. The animated landscapes are grand and gorgeous. The colors are vibrant and magnificent. And in 3D the film has an amazing depth to it that is unparalleled. No cheap 3D gags or gimmicks here, just a crystal clear window into a world that feels as if it goes on forever.

Composer Michael Giacchino compliments this with big, sweeping score that combines a fun, upbeat and oddly nostalgic tone of strings with the high-energy brass that is fit perfectly for the film’s numerous second half chase sequences. Both score and animation combine to create an environment so big and full of life, it is almost unlike anything Pixar has ever tried to do in the past.

Therein lies the true brilliance of a film like Up. It is a fun, epic adventure story about two age-separated explorers traversing out into uncharted territory. But it also never loses sight of the very intimate, very touching and essentially human story that it is trying to tell. It is that rare breed of family movie that speaks to anyone and everyone, the kind that will make the kids laugh while the adults cry. A wonderfully sweet and exciting tale that is without a doubt the first great film of 2009.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)