Pixar has become the most dependable studio out there for producing reliable films that don't simply continue to raise the bar in animation but set a level of excellence in storytelling that puts most live-action movies to shame. 'Up' represents another change in style, as significant as Wall-E's shift to photorealism, intricate camera effects and darker themes. It effectively blends moments of tragedy with almost slapstick humor, while showing that their understanding of story structure and pacing gets more refined with every release.
Up is about a 70-something ex-balloon salesman who fulfills a lifelong dream of adventure by tying thousands of balloons to his house and flying away to South America. This trip, inspired by his adventure-loving wife who dies before their dream is realized, is forced when property developers attempt a compulsory purchase on his house and try to move him to a retirement home (issues of death and eminent domain in a cartoon?). The problem is that he has an enthusiastic - and fatherless - 8-year old Wildness Explorer stowed away on the property when it takes off. Their adventure focuses on the characters they meet along the way, while our hero Carl is still trying to drag his house to the dream destination at the top of a waterfall.
The opening shows the life of Carl, growing from an young boy, meeting his adventuring-loving girlfriend, their marriage and her death just before their adventure starts - it's an incredibly emotional 5-minute intro that's light on dialog and heavy on visuals, and didn't leave a dry eye in the theater. This sequence in particular was reminiscent of the dialog-free sections of Wall-E which deliver their plot punches without exposition or the need for endless sequences that would take twice as long in live action. But this approach doesn't leave the younger audience behind either, and for such a dark start, all I could see in the audience were kids and adults alike glued to the screen.
I won't give away any more plot details since the film doesn't open for another three weeks, but every scene and character trait is meticulously plotted so that nothing seems too ridiculous or contrived, even for such a fantastic journey. The graphic stylization is also fresh, in the same way that The Incredibles had a very distinct and authentic look. All of this serves to heighten the humor and there are some extremely funny scenes, helped by the way the characters are quickly and believably established (even the talking dogs, but you'll see what I mean).
This is the second time I've been to Pixar to see a pre-release of a movie and I felt a little scared before seeing this one, wondering if their run of first-class work may have hit a plateau. On the surface, I didn't really think a story about a senior in a flying house could live up to Wall-E, yet although the films are as different as they can be, Up is as gripping and entertaining as any Pixar film. Their ability to blends styles and take the audience from laughter to tears in minutes showcases their deep understanding of story, and it's a shame that more films aren't crafted the same way.
Up opens on May 29, and I highly recommend it to everyone. The next two films out of Pixar will be Toy Story 3 (2010) and Cars 2 (2011). By the way, look at for a very funny short film before Up called Partly Cloudly.