The wave has broken and rolled back, finally: Up is the first film by Pixar studios in three years that does not fundamentally redefine what animated cinema is capable of achieving in the hands of modern filmmaking's greatest collection of geniuses. It is merely an example of what modern filmmaking's greatest collection of geniuses are capable of doing when they settle down to make a movie using all the skills they've accumulated over the years, and make it as a good a movie as they possibly can, and for right now, let epochal paradigm shifts tend to themselves for a while. It is thus a massive disappointment and unworthy of the Pixar name.


Okay, that's a slight lie. It's no Ratatouille or WALLΒ·E, but that's an obscene standard to hold any movie to. And compared to the rest of Pixar's output - a tradition of quality that has led just about every human being with the ability to form complete sentences about motion pictures to declare the studio the Most Consistently Brilliant Creator of Art and Entertainment in the World - Up stacks up terrifically well. The new film, written by Pixar workhorse Bob Peterson, who co-directed (whatever that means) under Pete Docter (whose other feature was Monsters, Inc.), is a sweet and gentle fable about an old man who comes to know the pain of losing the woman who has been his constant companion throughout all his life; who thereupon determines to complete the great adventure they never found time to pursue during her life; who is confronted at every turn with signs both obvious and subtle that his old way of living has gone and shall not return; and who finds a reason to continue on in the form of a guileless child whose unthinking good cheer reminds that old man that there is beauty in the simple fact of humanity. Yeah, so just another cartoon romp for the kids.

But that's the damned thing about Up: it glances in the direction of greater melancholy than just about any of the studio's previous films (though Toy Story 2 is certainly a work of deep existential terror), but that doesn't keep it from being staggeringly funny, and yes, a great children's movie in the best way: a simple story, beautiful colors, appealing characters rendered in a soft, toonlike way, and it never so much as thinks of talking down to the audience, or assuming that the kids in the theater will be so restless to watch a septuagenarian widower that the only way to keep them watching is a panoply of noisy comic relief characters and fart jokes. This is not a new truth about Pixar, of course. Everyone knows by now that their movies hit an uncanny sweet spot of adult seriousness and childish fancy; if perhaps that balance has trended a bit towards the adult side of things, Up restores things firmly to the camp where there's something for the grown-ups, something for their kids, and it's not always easy or necessary to figure out the exact point where one becomes the other.

The film tells the story of Carl Fredrickson (voiced by Ed Asner), whose long-deferred journey to the fabled Paradise Falls in South America is finally started one day after the death of his loving wife Ellie with the aid of what seems to be thousands of helium balloons poking out of his chimney, lifting his very house of the ground where he'd been threatened with removal for standing in the way of Progress, in the form of a retail development. Along for the ride, altogether by chance, is Russell (Jordan Nagai), a Wilderness Explorer whose gung-ho enthusiasm for helping the old man and earning his last merit badge is a cover for some unexpectedly deep-seated pain and longing for some affection and human contact of his own. The two voyagers make it South America in short order; the real adventure begins when they trek across a stony plateau and jungle, running across a giant, chocolate-eating bird, a dog named Dug with a collar that lets him speak in English (and the voice of writer and co-director Peterson) without, unfortunately, giving him the requisite intelligence to have anything worth saying. And there's more than that, a great deal more; but Up is a movie that knows very well that the best thing is the trip from here to there, and giving away the details of that trip would therefore be the worst thing I could possibly do.

At a minimum, the story of a house flying to South America on a fleet of helium balloons proves that we're not in the somewhat realistic settings of the last couple of Pixar adventures, and the return to undiluted fantasy and cartoon logic suits the filmmakers very well indeed (it's no accident, I think, that the last Pixar movie which had this kind of joyously unreal imagination was Docter's Monsters, Inc.). In no small measure, the foremost appeal of Up as a work of animation - rather than a narrative - is the delight in seeing wonderful sights, and the movie tips its hand with an extended montage of nameless audience stand-ins who do nothing but gawk in amazement at the sight of all those balloons, casting their colorful shadows across everything, carrying a rickety but once brightly-painted house through the air. It is not the only great gift of animation, but I think it to be the most noble, to show us something that could never possible exist or be believed in the real world, and Up does that as well as the best animators currently working could possibly manage.

And it's for this reason as well that the much-trumpeted Disney Digital 3-D on display - this is Pixar's first 3-D movie, though not at all the last, starting with 3-D reissues of the Toy Story movies this autumn - works, even if the technique isn't as revolutionary as it was in this spring's Coraline, except in a few shots. I cannot say in good faith, indeed, that Up "must" be seen in 3-D, although I also wouldn't say that this is a case, as it so often is, of putting lipstick on a dead and rotting pig. There's no "gimmicky" feel to Up because it's, to my best knowledge, the first 3-D movie without one single "crap flying at the audience" trick: the dimensionality is always and without exception used to deepen the film's settings, to give them richer physicality. At least, in theory; like I said, the shots where the 3-D is actually vital are thin on the ground. But thank God, it's never distracting or annoying.

It is a movie that's very sad & funny & thrilling all at once; the kind of film that is at first sheer entertainment for every second of its fleet running time (it seems that the Pixar experiment with films drifting near two hours is well and truly done, and I can't find it in me to mourn that fact, love Ratatouille though I do), and then only afterwards does the full emotional richness of the thing sit in the back of your mind kicking you until you start to realise how deeply moving it was all along. Up finds the studio in a deliberately minor mode, I suspect, trying to make nothing but a simple, appealing "cartoon" after a few "animated films" and they've succeeded, of course, but a Pixar cartoon is still about as good as movies, the kind that are pleasing and entertaining instead of serious and artsy, can be. Up has the unmissable sheen of magic that divides simple kiddie fare from the true classics, the films that light a tiny fire in the soul of anyone who watches them now and for generations to come.