Passion and imagination will thrive in all of the obligations and responsibilities the adult world throws at us, as Pixar’s Up takes great pains to remind us. The old but shrewd Carl Fredricksen hatches an ingenious plan to use hundreds of balloons to carry his entire house to a secluded set of waterfalls deep in South America. Though the movie glamorizes excitement and adventure, Fredricksen isn’t going at this for his own sake. He’s doing it for one of the most precious reasons imaginable … to keep a promise he made to his wife, many decades ago.
Up is a movie that stands at a great crossroads and isn’t entirely sure of its ultimate destination. In tossing together two protagonists with vastly different ages, upbringings, and personal values, this largely enjoyable movie makes a grand opportunity to bridge cultures new and old, but some of its own story decisions get in the way.
Whatever you dream, make sure to dream big.
An old-fashioned newscast tells the story of fictional explorer Charles Muntz, searching for the elusive Paradise Falls somewhere in South America using his dirigible, the Spirit of Adventure. It’s described as a “floating palace in the sky,” and it definitely looks the part, with a gorgeous dining room being only the beginning of its aesthetic attractions. Muntz’ glamour doesn’t last long, however: he brings back from the Falls an animal skeleton quickly dismissed as fake, ruining his reputation, which he then spends his life working to regain.
We meet a young Carl who loves the idea of adventure and flying, and he continually fantasizes about being an explorer. He stumbles upon Ellie, a girl who shares his interests and quickly invites him into her “club,” showing him her cherished adventure book. (Upon repeated viewings, I realize just how much innuendo there actually is in this scene, oddly enough. Oh, Pixar.) The book is a collection of things Ellie has done and wishes to do, and she also reveres Charles Muntz. She wants to take her clubhouse and park it right next to Paradise Falls–do you see where this is leading?–and upon seeing a balloon of Carl’s, she makes him promise to take her there in a blimp.
In an incredibly heartfelt montage of events, the two marry, buy a run-down house and work quickly and diligently to make it beautiful (Ellie is shown sawing wood while still in her wedding dress), and their house becomes a home as the two grow older, and closer, as the days go by; Carl supports his family as a balloon salesman. It’s here that the story’s mood takes a sharp but poignant downturn. Wordlessly, as with the rest of this montage, the story takes us through a series of tragedies and life events, one after the other. Ellie either miscarries or fails to conceive, and thus she and Carl never become parents. (Adoption doesn’t seem to enter the picture.)
They make a painting of Paradise Falls and a savings fund to travel there, but various necessities, time and again, place their plans on hold. (The savings fund is stored in a jar instead of a place perhaps more secure, like a bank, but given the voiceless presentation of these early scenes, it’s understandable that the story wanted to convey visual information as quickly and simply as possible.) The lovers have lived a long and happy life together, and while Ellie regrets nothing, the depth of the regret in the eyes of Carl–a loving husband who never gets to take his wife to Paradise Falls–is painful to witness and is as much a testament to Pixar’s writing as to the technical aspects of its character design, both superb here.
Carl becomes the logical and tragic extreme of a character like Wall-E, where his devotion to his wife knows and acknowledges no obstacle, whether for richer or poorer (which is shown), in sickness and in health (which is shown), till death parts them (and it does). Ellie, now an old woman with love and admiration for her dear husband, doesn’t survive the incredible opening of the movie. Carl Fredricksen made a promise, however, and he’s determined to keep it.
The film’s atmosphere seems divided against itself.
Depending on your own acceptance of stories with depressing moods, the following scene of Carl and his walking cane having a very long and humorous ride on a stair lift is either desperately needed or jarring. I choose the former, but shifting between tragedy and comedy is something the film occasionally succeeds at but never really masters. Set against what sounds like “Carmen,” Carl readies himself to attend the details of his everyday life, which largely consists of … sitting in a chair on his front porch. His house is still a relic of the past, in the middle of a community that’s being heavily renovated and modernized, but while he’s at the age where he’s getting brochures in the mail from retirement villages, he’s not about to give his house up without a fight.
Russell, meanwhile, is a young and almost Axiom-pudgy Wilderness Explorer who happens to be missing only one badge before he improves his rank. He needs to assist the elderly, which he indeed spends the rest of this movie doing. The extreme contrast between the ages of this movie’s two heroes makes for a really funny writing and animation challenge, being that one is a young boy with way too much energy and too little endurance (“I’m tired!“), and the other is a man who is still somewhat fit for his age, at least when his back cooperates with him. It’s not often I personally see a movie hero who happens to be really old, which makes for a neat decision on the part of the writing.
Carl isn’t particularly social, however, and he doesn’t want to deal with this boy, sending him on a snipe hunt. More people end up bothering Carl, one of whom he accidentally bloodies with his cane. This is not played for comedy or slapstick in any way, and the aftermath, including the man being taken away in an ambulance and Carl being summoned to court, easily makes for one of the grimmest scenes in any Pixar film I’ve watched. Up is a darkly mature children’s film that deals with the harshest realities of life, including the decisions that must come when at its end. The problem is that certain comic-relief sections, such as the stair-lift scene from earlier, seem in place not so much because they belong but because their absence would make the atmosphere of the film inaccessible for children. This eventually begins to impact the story.
The spirit of adventure
Remember all those balloons Carl used to sell? He uses many of his own to lift his house off of its foundations, beginning his journey to “sail” toward Paradise Falls. Said house floats down his modern neighborhood to the sound of extremely lovely music from stringed instruments. The collateral damage he causes, including knocking people’s television antennas off, is funny only until one wonders if Carl can still be held liable. In any case, he controls his house as though it were a blimp, and the sight of its curtain sails or wings is as creative as this film’s premise in itself. For the first time in a long while, we see Carl happy. He knows what he wants to do and how he’s going to do it.
He gets a knock on his door–at a thousand feet off the ground. Russell stowed away! What must his parents be thinking, I wondered throughout the movie, and how far is he willing to go to get his badge? Carl reluctantly lets him inside and immediately fantasizes about an unfortunate fate befalling the boy, in a moment of black comedy that’s one of the film’s best jokes, possibly because moments like this acknowledge the inherent dangers (and the somber mood) of the premise, in a way that makes them goofy.
One of these obstacles comes in the form of storm clouds, identified by the somewhat useful Russell, which soon send the house through terrifying amounts of turbulence. Carl’s old china begins shattering while the solidly built house shakes, and after the storm ends, there’s a grossly unsettling he’s-dead moment that threatens to send the film’s mood further downhill even after Russell manages to wake Carl back up.
Russell has surprisingly good navigational skills, thanks to his global-positioning system; he promptly loses it, but (slight spoiler) he does manage to get close enough to see Paradise Falls, which turns out to only be the beginning of the story. Carl does manage to keep his promise, and the show-off scenes of the falls themselves are lovely (if displayed rather distantly), even if they don’t impress me quite as much as space and the city of Paris did in Wall-E and Ratatouille, respectively. Didn’t the first Cars movie also have a waterfall scene?
The movie really begins to embrace the more absurd aspects of its premise as Carl and Russell wind up hanging onto the house–now above them, still being held aloft by balloons that survived the earlier storm–by its garden hose, and they end up having to walk the rest of the way to actually get next to the falls. Meanwhile, an unknown creature with the silhouette of a large bird moves through the forest extremely quickly, avoiding numerous dogs and traps along the way.
Russell brings in some off-camera bathroom humor that actually works, since he and Carl are on what amounts to an outdoor trip, and after Russell finishes, he discovers an unusual set of animal tracks, whose owner is revealed almost in a monster-movie fashion. Remember the snipe hunt Carl sent Russell on earlier? Russell finds one, a beautifully rainbow-colored bird that looks like a toucan, if not much like an actual snipe. “Kevin,” named by the boy, begins causing all kinds of trouble, as does a nearby dog, whose collar allows it to talk. I don’t think I would name a dog Dug. Carl finds himself with an increasing quantity of unwanted accomplices, now including a rambunctious boy, a rambunctious dog (with angry others nearby), and a person-sized bird that likes chocolate. It’s heartening to see how all of these sudden responsibilities teach Carl, who always cares very much about Ellie, to also care for people and animals whose lives he can still make a difference in.
Even though the adventure aspects aren’t my favorite parts of this film when compared against its aged protagonist’s remembrances of his wife, this is in some ways a highly creative take on the genre, thanks to said old man and a young child lugging a house around, which they can’t actually get into. Neither of the two is particularly virile, and as such, the movie boldly eschews the escapist trappings of something like a Raiders of the Lost Ark, opting for a romance that emphasizes the sweet and the sentimental instead of the convenient. Carl has been fortunate enough to have lived a life that shows what that kind of love should look like. Russell has not. We get small glimpses into his home life (spoken, not shown), not all of which are pleasant or altogether appropriate for children, and this probably makes for one of the first true bonding moments our heroes have in the movie. It’s a touching moment where the film begins to realize its true potential.
The biggest problem I have with a movie that is quite delightful on its own terms is that it never seems sure of what story it wants to tell. Its most meaningful experiences are found not in the excitement and hustle of adventure but in the quietness of memories gone by, even as those memories keep spurring a character largely defined by them to continue living his life. His is a worldview built up and then repeatedly worn away by one moment after another, and while the tale of his love for Ellie seems a simple one, it also seems like one without much room in the film for outside input (e.g., Russell). The boy brings his energy and curiosity with him, but even though some aspects of his past are interesting, he doesn’t seem to change or mature much throughout the story, leaving his character feeling underdeveloped compared to that of his impromptu guardian.
Only one direction left to go. (some spoilers)
An old man is shocked at Carl’s and Russell’s means of getting to Paradise Falls. Can you guess? It’s Charles Muntz, the once famed explorer Carl and his wife thought so highly of, and while he’s clearly grown older, he’s still very steady on his feet. Muntz, looking for the mysterious snipe (Kevin, who is busy elsewhere), invites the boy and the old man inside the Spirit of Adventure, which really is incredible to look at even without the movie stopping to showcase it. Muntz has a room filled to its ceiling with gigantic skeletons–it’d be quite impressive to be able to transport these, fully assembled, in a blimp without issue. In a neat twist, the dogs from earlier, save Dug, are Muntz’ home servants. The problem is, Muntz is bitter over being treated as a fraud and distrustful because of thieves (both of which are understandable in themselves), which he uses as an excuse to attack.
Russell does give some touching home-life monologues, though at this point I’m wondering how much of an effort is being made to find him, lest Carl be charged with kidnapping, guilty or not. Muntz is now completely hostile, causing a lot of damage and indirectly creating a very disturbing scene of one already injured and heavily distressed animal being surrounded by dogs. This is dark compared to most Pixar films I’ve seen, and perhaps it would be better that way if the movie ultimately stuck to one overall tone. Most of the comic relief is great even when abrupt, but the fight scenes with Muntz don’t really add much significance to Carl’s stories with Ellie or Russell. The nature of Ellie’s love story makes little sense to me in the context of a high-flying action film, but that is what this movie spends most of its late sections being. While this works very well, it also feels more “expected” and somewhat typical in its genre than do truly special moments like Carl’s initial establishing montage.
Conclusion: An exciting yet sometimes unfocused film.
I never did decide how I really felt about Up’s decision to be dark and moody on top of its sweet but tragic sentimentality. The biggest problem I have with the movie is that its moments that I consider the most poignant are mostly at the beginning. Muntz’s and Ellie’s stories seem to intersect without really adding to one another, and there’s an unaddressed rift between the young and the old. Carl does, in a sense, learn to be and to love being the father or grandfather figure he otherwise never got to be, and that’s amazing. It’s unclear how much he and Russell really learn from each other’s views of the world, and I’m not sure how much the latter changes as a character at all.
The comic relief, while nicely done in itself, feels forced, as though Pixar couldn’t decide whether to make a fanciful and lighthearted film about a sky-high adventure or a depressing but realistic movie that deals with themes like fertility issues, crime and punishment, and death and what happens after it. Adults might want the former, but would I expect children to want the latter?
Carl himself, while in some ways not always likable due to his initially selfish nature, is a wonderful character both to Russell and to Ellie, the latter of which he treats as always being right beside him. I ultimately really enjoy this movie, because while not everything that happens in it feels significant, the film is exciting, and it continually motivates me to care on some level about the two heroes, what they’re doing, and what’s happening to them in response. I don’t feel that it bridges old and new ways of life as wonderfully as Kiki’s Delivery Service did, but taken in terms of what it is, not in terms of what I would have wanted it to be, this movie is still very much a success. That musical motif is beautiful.
Image credits (thanks to Disney and Pixar)
Movie poster — source
Carl, young, with Ellie — source
Carl, old, with Ellie — source
Carl’s old house in a new community — source
House with balloons — source
Russell hanging onto Carl’s house — source
Dug, the dog — source
Carl, smiling in chair — source