"Up," the new animated feature from Pixar, opens with an extended sequence, lasting no more than ten minutes, that is probably the best thing the studio has ever done. Little Carl Fredericksen meets Ellie, his rambunctious soul mate, and, in quick, lyrical progression, we watch them grow up and marry and live a life together into old age, until Ellie's death leaves Carl a glum widower.
As a piece of poetic compression, it ranks with the opening of Orson Welles's "The Magnificent Ambersons."
But Pixar movies have a way of beginning beautifully and then getting lost along the way, and "Up," for all its charm, is no exception. ("Wall-E," for example, was one of the most bifurcated movies ever made – the Earth-bound opening section was transcendent, the rest was attenuated). Sustaining a solid story line is just as crucial for animation as for any other kind of movie, perhaps more so, since it's particularly tiring to suspend disbelief if the narrative is wayward.
"Up" is less visually exuberant than many of the other Pixar films, but in this case that's a plus. Its rather thin plot could not have borne the weight of wing-ding stylistics. Along with his codirector Bob Peterson, Pete Docter ("Monsters, Inc.") frames the action with such pictorial clarity that we are never overwhelmed. This may not be the best of the Pixar movies but it's probably the most graceful. (I saw it in 3-D but it can also be viewed, with probably not much visual loss, in plain old 2-D).
Most of the film is taken up with Carl's curmudgeonly decision to literally fly the coop. Hounded by construction crews eager to evict him from his home, this balloon salesman attaches balloons to his home and soars away. His mission: To touch down in remote Paradise Falls, South America, the place Ellie always dreamed of visiting.
Russell, a chubby young stowaway who is proud of his Junior Wilderness Explorer credentials, becomes Carl's helpmate. Pairing an eager-beaver kid with an old crank is not the freshest of ideas – we await the inevitable bond-a-thon. But, as voiced by newcomer Jordan Nagai and Ed Asner, these two characters have spunk to burn, and that helps scour some of the treacle from the concept.
When Carl and Russell encounter in the wilds a legendary renegade explorer, Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), and his pack of ravenous dogs, the film takes a vaguely Joseph Conradian turn that it can't begin to sustain. A more daring animator – Japan's great Hayao Miyazaki ("Spirited Away"), for example – might have brought out the frights and the madness. For all their inventiveness, Pixar movies never lose sight of their family entertainment provenance. "Up" ventures into the heart of darkness but the most disturbing thing to emerge from it is a prized rainbow-colored 13-foot bird named Kevin. That's not all bad. Kevin's very funny. And he's actually a she. Grade: B+ (Rated PG for some peril and action.)