Up–and Away

Seeing Pixar release a new movie is like watching a great figure skater do a triple axel. First, you realize that when all those other figure skaters are up, you were kind of nervous. They might land it, they might not, and you’re really on the edge of your seat. But then the gold medalist comes, and you just relax and watch the beauty unfold.

Remember last year, when the money men on Wall Street predicted that movie about the robot–the one with almost no dialogue–couldn’t possibly be a hit? And then the one about the rat? And the cars? And on and on.

I wasn’t worried in the least.

The two things that you can count on hearing when a Pixar movie come out are: “That was the best (Pixar) movie ever!” and “That wasn’t as good as [some other Pixar movie].” In the former case, they sometimes leave out the “Pixar” part. In the latter case, the person is typically referring to a Pixar movie that uniquely resonated in some idiosyncratic way.

But, really, the key thing about Pixar movies is that they’re all different. Even Toy Story 2 was thematically different from Toy Story. It’s not hard to make meaningful comparisons between them, but it is hard to state outright that of any two elements, one is necessarily better than the other. (I think this is true of all the movies, even A Bug’s Life and Cars, which are often unfairly maligned.)

Which brings us to this, the tenth Pixar film, and the tenth triple axel to be landed perfectly.

But differently.

In this case, we have the story of Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner), a 78-year-old widower who’s about to get put into an old folks home. Now, a lot of kid movies feature old people, but this one is about Carl. This is his story.

Showing, once again, that they know how to tell a story without a lot of expository dialog, director Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.) and co-director/writer Bob Peterson (Finding Nemo co-writer) use the first few minutes of the film to give us a love story between Carl and Ellie. They meet as kids, and through a love of adventure, share their lives for the next 65 years.

No child is going to experience this the way an adult does, particularly older adults. But this opening provides the hook that powers the movie. The older kids will get the connections, but if you’re an adult there will probably be parts that make you tear up.

It’s no surprise that Carl–a balloon salseman–rigs up a bunch of balloons to make his house float away, but when it happens, it’s nonetheless magical. And Carl’s expression as he floats through the air is sublime. But of course it only lasts a few seconds.

The fly in Carl’s ointment is young Wilderness Scout Russell (Jordan Nagai), and the subsequent adventure includes a giant toucan-ish type bird, talking dogs, and aerial combat. These are the sorts of things you expect from a kid’s movie. But as a grownup, you’re never far away from these little moments that ground the story in a peculiarly real way.

In a way, Carl’s actions are those of a man who’s life is almost over. This final grand gesture is his tribute to his wife, and yet Russell keeps interrupting that by embroiling him in things that are going on now. And because we’ve seen Carl at Russell’s age, we feel the wealth of emotions he feels at certain things Russell says and does, even while Russell himself doesn’t realize the impact he has on the old man.

So, plenty for the kids–and The Flower liked it a lot–plenty for the adults–as did I. If I were going to pick a demographic this wouldn’t appeal to, it’d be the teenagers, yet The Boy also liked it a lot.

Darcy pointed me to this blogcritics review, which is perhaps, an interesting. idiosyncratic counterpoint to mine: The reviewer loved Carl’s story but was dismayed by the actual adventure parts (while noting that the kids in the audience loved those parts, while seeming restless during the parts he liked). He even asks whether he is Carl, curmudgeonly hanging on to his old dreams.

At least he sees what’s going on: Many of the early Cannes reviews derided the picture’s “de-evolution” into an action film. They missed the point. Or maybe just made their choice.

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