With Up, Pixar has firmly announced itself as the greatest animation studio that we've ever seen. Disney never made so many consistently great movies. Japan's Studio Ghibli is as consistent in quality as Pixar, but I don't think they've made quite as many truly great movies. The thing about Pixar has also been that they're not afraid to be different, to take chances. Up is about Carl (Ed Asner), an old man whose wife has just died. They'd been in love since early childhood, and after her death he takes off on the type of adventure that they'd always dreamed of going on. He does it in a slightly unconventional way though. He was the balloon man at the zoo, and to go off on his journey, he ties thousands of helium filled balloons to his house and flys away to South America. He's joined on his journey by a sweet little Asian-American kid named Russell (Jordan Nagai). Russell is a "Wilderness Explorer" (basically a Boy Scout) who is trying to assist Carl in any way, so that he can achieve his "Assisting the Elderly" badge. The trip isn't quite what Russell had in mind, but he ends up appreciating the adventure more than Carl does.
The opening sequence of a young Carl watching movies about his hero, legendary explorer Charles F. Muntz (Christopher Plummer), meeting a like-minded (and motor-mouthed) young girl named Ellie, is terrific. But it then segues into the most powerful montage I've ever seen. We see Carl and Ellie fall in love, get married, fix up their house, plan for babies that never come, grow old together, and see Ellie's failing health and Carl's devotion to her. Just thinking about this sequences perfection and emotional power makes me tear up a little. It's the best thing that Pixar has ever done. As the plot takes control, the movie doesn't exactly lose steam, but it doesn't come anywhere near the unbelievable greatness of that first section. It does, however, continue to subtly build its characters so that by the time the last act kicks in, we're fully with our heroes and invested in them and their journey.
A lot of movies get labeled negatively as "sentimental". But I've never had a problem with sentimental things, especially when they earn that sentiment. Up earns it, and pulls on your heartstrings with regularity. Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and even The Incredibles did the same thing, and it works just as well here. Pixar just knows how to connect with their audience. I think it's because unlike in many "children's movies", Pixar never talks down to their audience, never insults their intelligence by just playing to the lowest common denominator. They don't care that their movies are thought of as "children's movies", they want to make great movies. Period. They actually seem to be consciously moving away from playing to kids with their latest run of movies, and we're all better off as moviegoers because of it. Their movies are still enjoyable for kids, but Pixar knows that the parents are buying the tickets, and if the parents are just as excited to see their movies, it's a win both financially and artistically, because they're not limited to just playing to one part of their audience.
In my mind, Up isn't quite on the level of greatness as Pixar's best, Wall-E, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille, but it's definitely great. And the best thing about Pixar's movies is that they're always better upon further viewings. That only means that I love Up, and can't wait to see it again.