As the leading exponents of a new media technology, Pixar make it their business to impress. Toy Story was a strong beginning; Monsters, Inc. demonstrated that they could show every hair on a furry creature; Ratatouille not only showed every hair on a rat, but showed every hair on a wet rat that had been struck by lightning; Wall-E featured grand vistas...
Up shows a photorealistic waterfall plunging off a Lost World plateau, a pack of semi-realistic dogs, and worn-out tennis balls covered in slime - all in immaculate 3D, if you go to the right screen. The humans are still more like plastic puppets, but I'd guess that Pixar won't try to change that until they can get to the far side of the uncanny valley in one titanic leap. Still, things are now getting to the stage that the cartoonish action sequences are looking markedly less plausible than anything else on the screen; increasingly realistic beings obeying unrealistic physics could become a problem. Though audiences used to modern action movies may not have too much trouble with this.
But that still leaves the question of the uses to which this synthetic realism is being put, which is becoming quite strange. Some critics have suggested that the protagonist of Up is a highly unlikely cartoon hero - a squat, grumpy geriatric. Actually, I suspect that "a cranky old man" would have seemed a perfectly reasonably lead character for, say, some of the classic Warner cartoons; it's only Pixar's connections with Disney that make it seem quite so strange, and heck, even Disney were noted for salting their emotional mix with the odd touch of sadness. But no, I don't think that any of the Golden Age Hollywood cartoon studios would have turned one of their movies into a wrenching meditation on aging, mortality, and the loss of dreams. (Not even if the tone shifted into something a little bit more conventional after half an hour or so.) But Up pushes its luck with the conventional cartoon audience fully that far; having the juvenile second lead turn out to come from a broken home, and then having the lead's lifelong hero prove to have been transformed by bitterness into a small-time Bond villain, end up looking like downright conventional touches. Another twist is to have the movie's talking animals - the dog pack - logically explained, and then to get a lot of good comedy from their pretty authentic canine psychology. (Mind you, after we've seen a whole furnished house wafted from North to South America under a cluster of party balloons, having anyone express surprise at a talking dog seems a bit of a cheek.)
Anyway, oh, yes, I nearly forgot - this is a good comedy, showing Pixar's customary eye for multiple details, with nary a clanking pop culture reference. The dogs get to provide most of the jokes, while also providing much of the practical menace; the leads are too busy being tragic. And Pixar do have some sympathy for the feelings of their younger audience members; on at least two occasions, some of the dogs should plunge to their dooms, but are granted soft landings instead. It's not a brutal film - just an oddly thoughtful one.
But where the heck are Pixar going to go next? Is the anglepoise lamp going to play King Lear?