06/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Up : First Great Film of the Year

You'd think that WALL-E would be a tough act to follow - but here comes Pixar with Up, a movie that matches that Oscar-winner for heart, laughs and pure excitement.

And that's not to mention the visual splendor - indeed, the sheer wonder - of the computer-generated images that comprise this dazzlingly entertaining film. You have to keep reminding yourself that you aren't watching something that has been photographed. Despite a stunning level of photorealism, this is a movie painstakingly built from binary code - 0s and 1s.

But you wouldn't know it, looking at the texture of things as simple as a Boy Scout - oops, Wilderness Explorer - uniform, the feathers of a bird, the fur of a dog or the individual hairs in an eyebrow. There's a tactile quality that puts you right in the film, whether you're watching it in 3D or not (I saw it in 2D and was completely transported).

Co-directed by Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.) and Bob Peterson (Ratatouille) from their script, Up compresses a lifetime into the first 15 minutes - and then jumps off from there. We see Carl Fredericksen as a cautious little boy in the Depression, marveling at the newsreel adventures of explorer Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer). Little Carl meets another Muntz fan, a peppy little girl named Ellie - and before you know it, the two are adults, married, with dreams of traveling to the remote South American locale, Paradise Falls, that Muntz explored. But, in another blink, Carl is an elderly widower (Ed Asner), living alone in a house surrounded by massive urban redevelopment that's trying to push him out.

Rather than move into a retirement home, Carl inflates hundreds of balloons with helium and simply floats his house away, in a scene as fanciful and uplifting as it sounds. But his new adventure has an unexpected passenger: Russell (Jordan Nagai), a young Wilderness Explorer scout who happened to be standing on Carl's front porch when the house took off. Russell needs one more badge (for assisting the elderly) to move up to become a senior Explorer. Prior to lift-off, he'd been badgering Carl to let him assist him.

The unlikely team touches down not far from Paradise Falls in a remote, alternately moon-like and jungle-tangled environment. It becomes Carl's mission to move his floating house to the top of the falls, as he and his wife fantasized. As he and Russell struggle to drag the house through the rugged terrain, Russell befriends a specimen of a unique local species of bird, which he names Kevin (it looks like a cross between a toucan and an ostrich, with some peacock coloring tossed in).

They also encounter a dog named Dug, who wears an electronic translator collar that allows humans to hear his thoughts spoken in English. As it turns out, Dug is one member of a pack of dogs, similarly wired - all of whom belong to the now elderly but still active explorer, Charles Muntz, who lives near the falls. But Muntz, they discover, has stayed alive to prove that the species of bird Kevin represents actually exists - and he's ready to ruthlessly use his new guests to get at their avian pal.

The film flows from act to act breezily, starting as a breathless adventure (flying a house to South America, exploring the jungle), moving easily to outlandish comedy (those talking dogs are hilarious) and then to action-thriller (as Carl and Russell try to save Kevin and themselves from Muntz and his canine cadre in a running battle that starts on land and moves to the sky, in both the house and Muntz's dirigible). Like the best of Pixar's animated features, it knows when to ratchet the suspense, when to tug the heartstrings, when to let the comedy come to the fore.

Up is more obviously cartoony in some ways than WALL-E: It's about human beings and dogs, both of which are given stylized representations. Yet the characters are fully fleshed. And the world around them - the landscape, the objects, indeed just about everything else - has a realism that's startling. As I noted before, you feel like you're looking at images captured by a camera, rather than generated by a computer.

Docter and Peterson have a strong grip on simple visual storytelling; as in the first 40 minutes or so of WALL-E, much of the early going in Up is handled without dialogue. An entire life is encompassed, with all of its joy and sorrow, in a few minutes of wordless - but substantial - filmmaking.

I don't want to oversell this film but, really, how could I? Up more than lives up to whatever I might say about it. It's the first great film of the summer - indeed, of the year.

See it in 2D or 3D - but see it.

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