The phrase “golden age of animation” conjures up images of Mickey Mouse in a sorcerer’s costume, Snow White and Bugs Bunny. The words remind us of a long ago time before jaggedly illustrated television cartoons like Rocket Robin Hood or The Flintstones replaced elegant hand drawn art. As fuzzy and nostalgic as my memories of those cartoons are, though, I’d argue that we’re in a new golden age right now, a gilded era of fantastic animation spearheaded by a group of picture wizards based not in Hollywood, but the out-of-the-way city of Emeryville, California. In each of their ten feature films Pixar has raised the bar so high few—live action or animated—have been able to match their skill with imagery or story. Their latest, Up, is a crowning achievement and the first animated film chosen to open the Cannes Film Festival.
The movie is a touching comedy adventure involving 78-year-old retired balloon salesman Carl Fredricksen (voice of Ed Asner). After the passing of his wife Ellie and the impending destruction of the home he shared with her, Carl decides to belatedly make their dream of exploring South America a reality. He ties 10,000 balloons to the house in an attempt to float to Paradise Falls, a place he’s only ever seen on a map. Once in flight Carl discovers he has a stow-a-way, an eight-year-old Wilderness Explorer named Russell (Jordan Nagai). Reluctantly Carl brings Russell along for the ride and together they share adventures in the Venezuelan jungle.
Finding Nemo screenwriter Bob Peterson has crafted an epic but personal story about rediscovering humanity, dealing with the loss of a loved one and finding a sense of purpose. It’s a subtly complicated story that gently introduces adult themes into an art form generally aimed at kids. Binding together elements of everything from A Christmas Carol to The Wizard of Oz and Fitzccarraldo, Up manages to be somewhat familiar and yet startlingly original all at the same time.
By mixing high tech state of the art computer generated images with the most old fashioned form of communication—superior storytelling—Pixar has created a film filled with that certain something generally missing from lesser animated efforts like Aliens vs. Monsters—a sense of wonder. The screen is filled with imagination, something that should appeal to all members of the family.
It’s also by turns hilariously funny and achingly tender.
Up is probably the most emotionally manipulative movie Pixar has ever made. Near the beginning Carl and Ellie’s life together is played out in a tour de force sequence that will bring a tear or two to your eye. When was the last time a cartoon made you cry?
Add to all that great voice work from old pros Ed Asner and Christopher Plummer and some good, deep genuine laughs and you’ve got the best movie of the year so far.