Dir. Pete Docter
(2009, PG, 96 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

My how the standards for American animation have changed! Cartoons — which now seems like an overly reductive term — once a medium for kids’ movies, have developed greater sophistication, richer themes, and more challenging stories than most films intended for adults. Pixar has led the way; the company’s last film, WALL-E, ranked as my favorite film of 2008.

Up opens with a boy, Carl (voiced by Jeremy Leary), in a movie theater staring up with wonder at newsreel footage of Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), an explorer and adventurer whose image is tarnished when one of his discoveries is debunked. Upon leaving, Carl comes across Ellie (Elie Docter), a boisterous girl who also idolizes Muntz and develops a fondness for her new friend. “You don’t talk a lot,” she tells Carl. “I like you!”

What follows is a chronicle of their relationship — a montage of scenes from their lives, from childhood, to young adulthood, to marriage, to old age, and finally to Ellie’s death. These brief moments in time give us a fuller sense of love than most films at feature length, and they floor us in ways we don’t expect. Consider the image of Carl and Ellie spotting the shapes of babies in the clouds, followed by a scene of the couple painting a baby’s room, followed by Ellie shedding tears in a hospital. Perhaps younger viewers will not understand that this sequence indicates a miscarriage, but the message will come through to adults. I was struck by the boldness of including such down-to-earth sadness in this pie-in-the-sky fable; it’s a tough dose of reality, but it informs our understanding of Carl and his quest.

In present day, Carl (now voiced by Ed Asner) has withdrawn from the world. He lives in the house he built with Ellie and stubbornly refuses to move out, even as new construction springs up around him. He is targeted by a real estate developer, who is a vivid character in a suit and sunglasses who has no dialogue and hardly any expression other than a faint grin of victory once he has backed Carl into a corner. He is more a shadow than a person.

To avoid having the house taken from him and demolished, Carl sets out to realize his wife’s childhood dream: to bring her house to Paradise Falls in South America, a landmark made famous by their hero Muntz. He raises thousands of helium balloons from his chimney and takes flight, but he has a stowaway: Boy Scout Russell (Jordan Nagai), who came to his door hoping to earn a merit badge for assisting the elderly. Carl imagines a drastic means of getting rid of the boy that rivals the cape sequence from The Incredibles for acid hilarity.

The floating house eventually arrives in South America, a bit off its target, and we are unsurprised when Carl and Russell encounter Muntz himself. From this point I will describe little of the plot and will only say that from the reappearance of Muntz the film’s themes reveal themselves. This is a story of obsessive need, of holding on too tightly. Muntz is determined to redeem his legacy. Carl is determined to keep some part of Ellie alive; he speaks to his floating house as if he is speaking to her, and as the folly of his endeavor becomes clearer, we see it manifested in the toppled furniture, ruptured balloons, and Ellie’s picture falling off the wall. The house is nearly burned, crashes into rocks. He wants to honor’s his wife’s memory, but it is only an excuse to sequester himself in grief, and all the while the symbolic house comes down around his head.

Russell is searching for something too. He shares a touching scene with Carl that subtly describes his family and makes us understand why he really strives for merit badges. The screenplay by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson is gratifying in how it makes time for scenes like that, with dialogue that is mature and revealing, amidst the welcome whimsy of giant tropical birds and talking dogs. The canines speak through specially designed collars; a villainous alpha dog has a loose wire that makes his ruthless declarations sound … well, much less intimidating.

Docter also directs. He received Oscar nominations for co-writing Toy Story and WALL-E as well as for his last feature directing credit, Monsters Inc., and if I call that film one of Pixar’s lesser efforts I only mean that it is simply good and not great. Up is a step, well, up for the filmmaker, in a company that seems to specialize in steps up; every Pixar film sets the bar ever higher, to the point where we can hardly believe they continue to clear it. As for the future, I suppose it would be fitting to say, the sky’s the limit.