Up Dir. Pete Docter

[Disney•Pixar; 2009]

The disposable manner in which the moviegoing public treats summer-event pictures never fails to astound me. We are told -- not only by extravagant marketing campaigns, but by our friends, coworkers, and the people around us -- that movies like Terminator are sort of a big deal. Nevertheless, how people continually throw substantial sums of money at movies that are not only devoid of imagination, but relentlessly boring to boot, will baffle me for years to come. But then there's Pixar, a production company that evidently exists in an alternate universe, where entertainment is not a premium but an inherent requisite, where mere children's films are transformed into defining cultural statements, where that surefire dose of movie magic perpetually leaves us begging for more.

Pixar movies create secret worlds intended to liberate its heroes from interminable uniformity, thus allowing them to achieve not merely a sense of pride or victory but self-actualization. Likewise, the masterminds behind the studio have found a way to reconfigure the CGI kid-pic template as a portal for their boundless imagination, in turn separating themselves from the pack and ensuring that each release upholds the privileged status of "event picture" on the basis of genuine merit. It's not only that their films reliably entertain -- and they do, being consistently funnier and more action-packed than most blockbusters specifically designed to do one or the other -- but they also transcend the material plane, challenging audiences artistically, intellectually, even philosophically.

Let's slow down the hyperbole train and get to the movie itself. What is Up about? Well, Pixar has always had a penchant for simplistic yet oddball premises, but Up may top 'em all: an old man flies away to South America in a house attached to a bunch of balloons. When I saw the initial trailer for Up, I thought "well, this can't be it," and thankfully it's not; there's also a tubby Boy Scout, talking dogs, a tropical ostrich-like creature, a Lindbergh-esque hero, and an epic battle scene aboard a massive zeppelin. (Let's pray I can stop irritating others by talking in the infectious, halting delivery of Dug the talking dog before the fourth of July.) There's also the heart-rendering, bravura opening sequence chronicling protagonist Carl's life prior to take-off, a bravura piece of minimalist storytelling that could function as a short film by its lonesome.

Up carefully evolves from the small scale to the large, deriving as much enjoyment from the simple shot of a rickety balloon-house floating amongst the clouds as it does from the inevitable action-packed climax. But I won't spoil anymore, as how the movie unfolds in an inspired, ramshackle way is largely part of the movie's fun itself. And as is always the case with Pixar's efforts, the lush, remarkably detailed visual design is every bit as transporting as the film's narrative. The candy-colored warmth of Up contrasts nicely with the stark dystopic images of last summer's Wall-E.

Although it doesn't quite reach the dizzying heights of Wall-E or the Toy Story movies, Up is another terrific entry in an increasingly prolific oeuvre that has set the gold standard for commercial filmmaking, animated or otherwise. Once again, Pixar has proved why it refuses to be tethered to ground level, soaring far above mediocrity and sending our spirits in the titular direction as grandiose entertainments are meant to.

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