It took more than 65 years, but a Disney company has finally topped the death of Bambi’s mother on the pathos-and-childhood-trauma scale. Pixar Animation’s new Up begins with an efficiently brutal sequence encapsulating the life of a thoroughly lovely woman, from childhood to death: With the studio’s usual economy and depth of characterization, the film goes about making audiences love her, then takes her away for good. The point is to let viewers share the grief of her grumpy old widower Carl (Ed Asner), and to humanize him and explain his actions going forward. But as an ancillary effect, the sequence proves once again that Pixar is always more concerned about a well-told story than with hedging its bets about what’s safe for or even naturally appealing to audiences.
That mentality naturally extends through the rest of the film. More so than past Pixar films (The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Finding Nemo, the Toy Story movies, etc.), Up goes off in half a dozen wild, random directions rather than focusing on a comfortably iconic central story. It begins with Carl as an isolated, 78-year-old retiree morosely facing the changing world, until he decides to follow through on a long-ago promise to his beloved wife Ellie by visiting South America. Facing the loss of his house—sentimental seat of his memories of Ellie—he uses thousands of helium balloons to take it with him. He and the house (and an accidental stowaway) head off on a typical dreamer’s quest, but as the story gets considerably weirder, it becomes less about his original plan and more about how it opens him up to danger and loss of control, but still helps him rejoin the world and learn to live in the present.
Up isn’t as tightly plotted as past Pixar projects, which makes it gleefully unpredictable, yet less satisfying on a simple gut level; it lacks the familiar rise and fall, anticipation and release of most children’s stories, as Carl’s plan gets so thoroughly compromised that the focus and intent of the story are often unclear. But that’s part of the point, and part of the fun: just waiting to see what screenwriter and co-director Bob Peterson (co-writer of Finding Nemo) comes up with next. Much like that rich, tragic opening, the rest of Up is challenging, emotionally and narratively, but it trusts viewers to keep up; Pixar has never been interested in talking down to children or their parents.