When I first saw Toy Story, the debut Pixar film, I was as awestruck as everyone else in that sold-out showing at the Kaahumanu Theater. Of course, none of us were aware of the event film each subsequent Pixar release would be. In fact, Toy Story opened against Goldeneye, the first 007 movie in half a decade, and didn’t appear to be anything more than a cool-looking gimmick. I mean, c’mon—computer generated animation? Will this last?
Fourteen years later, the quality of a Pixar film remains sky-high for two very big reasons: character and story. Other films offer cutting-edge animation and some have outright attempted to steal the Pixar formula. But they’ve all fallen short, because Pixar films have a rare, inimitable quality where you genuinely love the characters and are deeply engaged by the journeys they take.
The word “journey” is especially appropriate for Up, Pixar’s latest masterpiece, which follows the adventures of Carl, an elderly but feisty old man who attaches hundreds of balloons to his house and flies away to a fabled land. The element of surprise is rich here, so I won’t describe any more of the plot, but the imagination on display is astonishing. I had no idea where the story was going and was constantly stunned and delighted by the wild twists and hilarious characters.
The emphasis may be on comedy but, like Wall-E, this is a love story at heart; a quiet montage at the beginning could drive audiences to tears. Adults will be floored by how truthful, tender and moving the film’s first act is, while the young ones may be surprised by how serious this sometimes gets (and yes, the PG rating is appropriate, as a few moments scared the little ones in the screening I attended). From the first scene, you really feel for Carl—instead of being a stubborn old man cliché, he’s one of the most determined and heroic figures we’re likely to see all summer.
As for the animation, the characters may have a toy-like appearance, but the clothes they wear and the places they go look utterly real. The ending is all about action, which is fun, if not as emotionally charged as the film’s remarkable beginning. Yet the story is always rewarding, with thrilling set pieces and some hilariously warped details (the initial bit with the talking dog is only a set-up for one of the biggest laughs of the summer).
It’s a gift to movie lovers that Pixar can produce an animated knockout almost semi-annually. And their influence on the studio that Walt built is showing—this fall, we get The Princess and the Frog, the first traditionally animated Disney film in years. The magic lives on. MTW