Another year, another embarrassment of riches from Pixar, the computer animation studio purchased three years ago by Disney. Audacious concepts, mature and witty writing, sensuous animation that forces you to consider with fresh eyes the world right under your nose - this excellence is getting predictable. So it is incumbent upon me to point out a design flaw in its first 3-D film, Up. Those clever clogs have screwed up this time; that much becomes apparent when the story hits an emotional peak around the 15-minute mark. Well, have you ever tried crying while wearing 3-D glasses? It's a mess. Not so smart now, are you, Pixar?
The studio's last two features focused on a rodent chef (Ratatouille) and a forlorn robot (WALL-E). Rumours indicate that the next boldly uncommercial project will be told from the perspective of a prawn cocktail. For now, Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) is the latest affront to received wisdom about what constitutes a movie hero. Carl is a crotchety, square-faced widower with a letter-box mouth and a nose like a squashed tennis ball. He wears cumbersome black glasses, but then so do we - in our 3-D specs, we could be a convention of Carl Fredricksen lookalikes.
Carl and his late wife, Ellie, spent their life in a clapboard house that is now the only remaining obstacle to a redevelopment plan. It stands in the dust of a building site, flanked by skyscrapers, and still Carl refuses to sell up. His solution is extreme, but pragmatic, in the face of an unpredictable property market: he literally moves house, attaching hundreds of lollipop-coloured helium balloons to the roof and departing for South America, which Ellie always dreamed of visiting. Digs might fly, indeed.
The moment when the house tentatively begins its ascent is so intoxicating that only a killjoy would ask where Carl found the means, let alone the stamina, to engineer his escape. On the contrary, it's the ease with which he realises the plan that lends the film a euphoric lift; it blows a raspberry at the Fitzcarraldo method of doing things. Not that the film lets Carl have everything his own way. He is saddled with assorted pesky sidekicks: an eight-year-old Boy Scout, Russell (Jordan Nagai); an effusive dog called Dug (voiced beautifully by the co-director Bob Peterson), whose ability to speak becomes a riff on the anthropomorphism of the conventional cartoon animal; and an elegant but flightless bird, naturally named Kevin.
The house itself is subjected to a thorough regime of punishments, including an arson attack which provides that note of primal horror crucial to any fairy tale. I could sympathise with one child in the cinema who became audibly distressed as flames licked at the monument to Carl and Ellie's life together. The couple's mutual devotion is established so comprehensively in the opening scenes that a smashed window or broken ornament feels like a violation of Ellie's memory (though Carl's liberation from material possessions becomes one of the points of the film).
Up uses 3-D subtly, to convey height and distance, or to punch home the terror of, say, being chased by hounds. Besides the more obvious achievements, it is also, quite unexpectedly, the best action movie since the last Bourne film. But without the underlying emotional plausibility, these technical highs would count for little. "I think the boring stuff is the stuff I remember the most," says Russell, reflecting on hours spent with his estranged father. For all its exotic adventure, the film similarly insists on the melancholy miracles of the everyday. You might say it's like Jules Verne crossed with Alan Bennett, though I have a nagging feeling that this won't make it on to the poster.
If the film doesn't quite have the bold strangeness of WALL-E, its tone is still off-kilter. This is a world where a house can fly, but an exotic bird remains earthbound. Dogs that have been trained to the standard of Regency butlers revert to instinct when their master isn't looking, gnawing the museum bones they were dusting seconds earlier. And the film's marriage of the parochial and the epic is embodied in the delightful image of a vast dirigible moored in a disabled parking bay. Should you wish to experience modern cinema at its most unfettered, the only way is Up.
dir: Pete Docter