‘Up’: New High, By Kurt Loder

Pixar tops itself.

The new Pixar Animation feature “Up” goes boldly where even live-action movies rarely dare. The film’s hero, Carl Fredricksen, is a hunched and grumpy 78-year-old man, for one thing. We meet him, though, at the age of eight — a sparky kid with a yen for adventure and an avid interest in the exploits of a world-famous explorer named Muntz. When Carl encounters Ellie, a spunky little girl with exactly the same passions, they form a bond, and the picture takes wing on a surge of emotion. In a long, wordless montage we see their lives play out. They dream of the real-life adventures they’ll have when they grow up. They marry and settle into an old abandoned house they’d discovered as children (it was the headquarters of their two-member explorers club). Carl works as a balloon salesman, and they try to save money for a dream trip to South America — to Paradise Falls, the last known destination of the long-vanished Muntz. But life keeps getting in the way — sometimes, as usual, tragically — and in the end, Carl is left alone, the dream he shared with Ellie still unfulfilled.

This glorious prologue — a triumph of conception and editing — casts a powerful spell, and the movie miraculously sustains it. Carl (now voiced by Ed Asner) potters around his lonely home mourning the departed Ellie, while outside, his neighborhood is being gobbled up by ugly high-rise construction. When Carl is threatened with eviction and relocation to a nursing home, he makes a daring escape by tying 20,000 balloons to his beloved house and, with a weather vane for a rudder and curtains for sails, takes off for Paradise Falls.

Crank that he is, Carl’s not happy to discover a stowaway onboard — an eight-year-old Wilderness Explorer named Russell (first-timer Jordan Nagai), who had come knocking on Carl’s door seeking to earn an old-folks-assistance badge when the house suddenly rose up into the clouds. Carl grumbles at Russell a bit, but we know that can’t last too long, and after riding out a big thunderstorm, the two newly minted adventurers finally reach the fabled Paradise Falls. There, traipsing through the jungle (with Carl leading the balloon-borne house along on a rope leash), they encounter a big goofy bird with an unexpected taste for chocolate. Russell names this gawky creature Kevin — although it turns out to be an avian mom who’s become separated from her babies. There’s also a pack of hostile dogs with electronic collars that allow them to actually speak (in a number of languages), and one friendly mutt named Dug, who tries to be helpful but usually fails, calamitously.

The dogs are actually owned and operated by none other than Muntz (Christopher Plummer), now more than a little crazy after all his years in the wild, and, with his sinister dirigible, fitted out with searchlights and animal nets, much more dangerous than Carl ever could have expected.

The story is engagingly eccentric, and the characters, of course, are lovingly detailed. And this being a Pixar project, the animation has a hallucinatory perfection (especially in 3-D.) Just the storm scene — with Carl and Russell being tossed around inside the house as furniture and knickknacks fly about — is a marvel of painstakingly detailed action. And even the smallest touches (when Carl mounts his front steps, we notice that each one of them sags ever so slightly under his weight) contribute tingles of pleasure. Pixar has come to specialize in animated masterworks, from “Toy Story” through “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles” and the peerless “WALL-E.” But even among the company’s roster of magical hits, “Up,” which opened this year’s Cannes Film Festival (a first for an animated feature), stands out. Will this be the animated film that finally earns a Best Picture Oscar nomination (instead of being shunted off into the animation ghetto)? No one who sees the picture is likely to bet against the possibility.

Don’t miss Kurt Loder’s reviews of “Drag Me to Hell” and “Big Man Japan,” also new in theaters this weekend.

Will the vampires grab more trophies than the slumdog? What was the year’s ultimate onscreen WTF moment? It’s up to you to decide the winners of the 2009 MTV Movie Awards. Vote now, and tune in on Sunday at 9 p.m. ET, when the big show airs live from the Gibson Amphitheatre in Universal City, California.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Up.”
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