HERE'S THE BOILERPLATE introduction movie critics are called upon to write every seven years: In 1964, filmmakers selected 14 children from different tiers of the British class system. In Seven Up!, these children were interviewed about their hopes and dreams, and were filmed playing together on a playground that, to today's viewer, looks remarkably like a garbage dump. Every seven years, filmmaker Michael Apted revisits those children, and the result is one of the most affecting, emotionally engaging projects in cinema history.

From its inception, the Up series has had an explicitly sociological bent: "Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man," runs the quote that serves as the series' de facto tagline.

In the grim, black-and-white '60s, this line had the ring of a curse. It was impossible not to worry for poor Paul and Symon, sleeping in dormitories at a charity-run children's home while the film's privileged subjects—at age seven!—discussed plans to attend Oxford and Cambridge. Comparing the futures of children who came from such different backgrounds seemed almost cruel.

Certain installments of the series are indeed pretty harrowing. There's a rough patch in the middle, around 21 and 28—everyone seems to be getting married too young, and one of the upper-class boys, Neil, unexpectedly winds up mentally ill and homeless.

But when the Up series' subjects (not all of whom have participated in every film) hit their 40s, things seem to even out: Most of the subjects have found a measure of contentment in their middle age. Viewers are no longer taxed with the burden of worrying how these kids will turn out—they've turned out already, and most of them are just fine.

56 Up marks the return of Peter Davies, absent since 28 Up, when he faced ridicule in the press for criticizing the public education system. Now he's back to promote his band, and I suppose he should be credited for finding a way to make the show's scrutiny work to his advantage. (Another subject, John Brisby, has similarly exploited the visibility the series allows him—albeit for the more noble reason of drawing attention to the charities he supports.)

Otherwise, 56 Up doesn't add much new information to 49 Up. As several of the film's subjects point out, the series is, by nature, reductive, compressing an entire life into segments of just a few minutes. And with every new film, the strain of editing together so many stories over so many years shows a bit more. But while there are certainly more complex and nuanced character studies to be found in documentary and in literature, when it comes to the simple fascination of watching a human life move through time, nothing approaches the span and breadth of what's captured here.