For more than a decade Pete Docter’s Up reached a rarified status in the Walt Disney Company portfolio – it was such an unimpeachable classic that the thought of sequels or spin-offs (save for two home video shorts and some pre-release marketing pieces) was forbidden. This was, after all, only the second animated feature to ever be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and the winner of two trophies anyway. You can hear Michael Giacchino’s score while walking down Main Street, U.S.A. at Disneyland. The “Married Life” sequence is still heralded as one of the most thoughtful and devastated pieces of modern animation (and rightfully so). Up is an unimpeachable work of art, plain and simple. So, sure, the idea for the movie to be spun off into a series of Disney+-exclusive short films is somewhat alarming. Thankfully Dug Days doesn’t try to recapture or reinvent Up’s magic; instead, it casts a spell all its own.
In some ways, Dug Days is a straightforward follow-up to Up. The opening credits depict Carl Fredrickson (once again voiced by the incomparable Ed Asner, now 91 years young) selling the zeppelin that he and Dug had called home since the end of the feature. They search for different houses before settling on a modern suburban retreat. He adds a weathervane of Kevin and her babies up to. (Later on its implied that they either live next door or in the same neighborhood as Russell, voiced by Jordan Nagai probably via archival recordings.) The subsequent episodes following Dug around on various adventures – one sees him squaring off against a persnickety neighborhood squirrel (his constant foil), another finds him struggling with the arrival of several puppies Carl is fostering for an afternoon, and one dramatizes Dug’s intensified sense of smell as he struggles to pinpoint a new, wholly different, odor.
These new shorts are written and directed by the great Bob Peterson, who co-directed and co-wrote up and is one of Pixar’s most unsung geniuses. He clearly knows these characters incredibly well and also voices Dug; if there was anyone’s hands to put a project this potentially shaky in, it’s his. Peterson’s last project for Disney+ was the wonderfully wacky Forky Asks a Question. If there was one downside to those wonderful cartoons, it was that they were too short. Dug Days are, thankfully, much longer, between 6 and 10 minutes each.
Dug Days’ additional time allows Peterson to add nuance and character, and to experiment with form and texture. There’s one installment called “Flowers,” ostensibly about Dug’s fear of fireworks, that quickly transforms into an offbeat, surreal mood piece set to classical music. Dug gallops through psychedelic flowers, past trees adorned with flopped-over dead squirrels (his favorite joke). It’s the closest thing to a Fantasia installment Pixar has ever made. And it’s beautiful. The fact that it arrives smack dab in the middle of a somewhat typical cartoon makes it even more delicious.
“Flowers” might be the best example of this kind of wacky willingness to explore the possibilities of these shorts, but it is typical of the layered, whimsical approach to each story. While each has a simple-to-follow narrative, there are some deeper themes at play that kids should understand and respond to (the importance of sharing, what it takes to be a hero), while also infusing it with the same kind of bittersweet, melancholic tone that made Up so delightful in the first place. It’s never trying to reproduce what was done in Up. This is clearly smaller and sillier, but tonally and visually (the animation by Pixar is gorgeous) it clearly exists in the same world.
And while there isn’t anything in Dug Days that packs the same emotional wallop as the “Married Life” sequence, the show’s final installment should make you well up just the same. Throughout the show, Dug calls Carl “Papa.” It’s so endearing and adorable. By the end of the series, you will know how Carl feels about Dug. And it’s one of those lump-in-your-throat moments that is hard to shake, not only because of the emotionality of the scene, but because, at 91, this is very likely the last time that Ed Asner will voice Carl. It makes everything about the series even more powerful, and cements Dug Days as a micro masterpiece – one you can get through very quickly, but will likely stay with you for a long, long while.