Fifteen years since the release of Toy Story, Pixar has made it very clear that they would like to be considered a movie studio in the classic sense: their films all seem to illustrate a singular creative perspective. As their individuals films do incredible things with franchising and merchandise (Cars and Toy Story especially, notably the two with sequels in-progress), with industry-defining productions and unparalleled quality control, every Pixar film promotes the big brand name, the studio. So it was, once upon a time, with studios-cum-corporations Paramount, Warner Bros., MGM and yes, Disney.
Disney acquired Pixar in 2006 after a long distribution partnership, but the agreement doesn't conflate Disney's and Pixar's product (Disney has their own CG studio, which recently released Bolt). Where the Animation Studio at Disney has trademarked princesses and fairytales with happy endings, Pixar--aptly, given the nature of 3-D computer animation--makes worlds. Most Pixar films open a portal to a fantasy where toys or cars or fish can talk and have adventures. They explore their exotic world, meet loads of funny characters, and in the end demonstrate they're all just like us. Usually there's a coming-of-age message in there, whether it's learning to share (Toy Story), let go (Finding Nemo), or grow the hell up already, entire human race (WALL-E).
Up is Pixar to the core, but framed a little differently. We start familiar, with human characters in suburbia, but they find two adventures: getting to their exotic world, and the adventure that world presents when they get there. Carl Fredricksen is a grumpy old man who'd really like to simply deposit his suburban house on top of the waterfall his dead wife always imagined. That's adventure number one, already a little more grave than most childrens' fare, and it's all the trailer might lead you to expect the movie is. And the story of the old man and his wife--practically a silent movie, complete with newsreel film, further nods to a cinematic era gone by--is heartrending. By the time Carl's quest begins, the audience is completely invested in seeing that floating house get plopped on that cliff.
Then again, we know Pixar. Carl accidentally acquires a fat-faced cub scout named Russell and we're off to the races. The trip is shown in ellipsis: beautiful shots punctuated by mayhem. The physical comedy is tightly directed, nearer the style of network television animation than Disney's. The dialogue--written in the smart, contemporary voice of The Incredibles--jeers the old man and the dopey kid equally, making Up more like a buddy picture than the age gap might suggest. When they arrive in Venezuela, characters (I won't ruin with explanation) pile on until the adventure is more their story than Carl's. Facing that fact--and reinventing himself accordingly--is the old man's Nietzschean coming-of-age, and the real adventure.
Framing the story in reality briefly touches just how deeply our lives today are segregated by ageism; the elderly disappear to retirement communities and assisted-living facilities, and children are instructed never to speak to adults. Extending that to the critical reception of Up, it's typical that the debate centers around the appropriate subjects for a children's movie, whether we've exhausted 1930's adventure tropes, or whether Ed Asner just makes a boring toy. In Up, Carl's quest begins with his displacement from his lifelong home, but he proves he doesn't need to be taken care of, and it may contradict everything we tell kids, but it's only through talking to strangers that Russell can attain his last merit badge, and most importantly for him, make friends.
There's never been a neat division between Pixar's children and adult audiences, as evinced by Disney's campaign to get WALL-E one of last year's Best Picture Oscar nominations. Up's cast personifies that. It persuades its curmudgeon to feel young again, just as Pixar's inclusive approach grows its audience with every film. It's exciting to see a cutting edge animation studio debut their first feature in a new format* with a nod to the past. It's very telling about who they are as a company, but also, who they're setting out to be. Like classic Disney or the Termite Terrace (Warner Bros. Cartoons), today's Pixar is not just a children's entertainment franchise, they're the best animation studio in the world.
*Note on 3-D: The recent rebirth of 3-D in cinemas has--so far--had some success in the extra dimension with scale (Monsters vs. Aliens) and texture (Coraline); Up does crazy things with depth, which is to say, vertical depth. I've never felt so afraid of heights. Recommended, if it's available.