Things Are Looking Up!

After The Incredibles, I started doubting the promise of Pixar’s next few features based on the trailers for their next movies. It wasn’t that I was gleefully anticipating their inevitable fall from grace. On the contrary, I wanted Pixar to continue making great pictures. But after six phenomenal movies, I just expected we’d eventually see a dud. However, with each film, they kept their streak of quality alive.

So by the time that the prospect of a Pixar movie about an old man setting off on an adventure on a balloon-driven house, I took it in stride and had every confidence that this would be another remarkable piece of art from the folks in Emeryville.

Because as everyone is starting to learn, these movies are not about the basic premise or plot, but about the story and characterization. The water colors of animation are now polluted with countless Pixar knock-offs attempting every sellable movie concept that it’s impossible to base one’s anticipation on premise alone. It’s all about the execution. And this is the only studio I have complete faith in to build a fantastic story around any kind of premise and make it work.

And that brings us to their 10th feature, the aforementioned tale of an old man’s desire to reach a far-flung destination he and his wife dreamed of their whole lives. Up we go!

For the second summer in a row, and depending on your angle, perhaps the second YEAR in a row, Pixar has created a more emotionally resonant movie than anything else out there, INCLUDING live-action cinema. The summer movie season is almost entirely filled out with popcorn flicks, whether they star superheroes, robots or pratfallen men. And many of these attempt emotional drama so badly that it undercuts the ultimate goal of these movies: to entertain. Critics and fans now cherish a movie that doesn’t even bother and just delivers on either laughs or explosions. It’s less insulting than trying to buy into Wolverine’s angst over a lost lover or John Connor’s desperate existence, delivered in loosely-constructed, let’s-just-get-this-over-with-and-blow-something-up fashion. But as exciting as these movies are, they often just feel like empty calories.

Up, much like Finding Nemo and WALL-E, tells a story that is entirely driven by a character’s heart, which allows the action to flow naturally as an extension of the determination of its protagonist. Carl Fredricksen chooses his journey as one last mark of a desperate and lonely old man, widowed from the love of his life and pushed to the edge by the gentrification that surrounds his quaint home. So he does what anyone would do and floats his house to South America with thousands of balloons!

Fredricksen is attempting to fulfill the vow he and Ellie, his life-long sweetheart, promised from the day they met as children. Carl and Ellie married and lived a wonderfully happy life together. But real-life problems made them consistently turn to the bank they created to one day pursue Paradise Falls, a realistic destination that is painted as almost mythical to their wide-eyed youthful selves. This is the hook for the countless adults viewing this movie with their own stored dreams, shelved as they pour money into fixing leaky faucets, flat tires and root canals.

However, Carl and Ellie lead a wonderful life because their ultimate joy is each other. Even their inability to have a child does not break them apart, it only reinforces Carl desire to do anything for his wife. In their twilight, he purchases two tickets to South America so they could finally fulfill their dream, but Ellie falls ill before they can go and eventually passes on.

This entire life together is shown as a silent montage at the beginning of the film, creating that rare moment in animation cinema where you’re crying your eyes out 10 minutes in. (I desperately tried to hold it in while a child a few rows back asked their parent “What happened to Grandma?”) And no matter how grumpy and crotchety the movie will go on to paint Carl, you root for him because of how much emotional subtext the filmmakers have given this character from the start. It’s a rare movie where we don’t have to wait until the end to discover if a character can be redeemed. We know Carl will…we’re just waiting for him to get there.

He’s joined on his journey by Russell, an adolescent wilderness explorer. The movie thankfully stays clear of painting him as the stereotypical do-gooder who saves Carl. He’s pesky and clumsy, but he’s driven and a mirror image of Carl before he lost everything. Carl learns to care for the boy and seek his assistance, even as they keep gathering more passengers on their journey, including Dug, a “talking” dog, and Kevin, a rare bird that is the elusive target of Charles Muntz. (Muntz is a wolf in sheep’s clothing who betrays Carl’s lifelong idolatry when he’s exposed as a selfish gamesman hellbent on the redemption of his own ego and fame.) See, Russell is still just a boy, he doesn’t know how to change Carl. Carl has to figure that out on his own, which he does in the movie’s most poignant moment, a scene which illuminates the essential message of the movie and reinstates Carl’s spirit of adventure. (Best kept unspoiled for those who have not seen the film.)

Make no mistake, above all of the emotional subtext is an incredibly exciting and humorous movie, that often dances between dry wit and exuberant zaniness. Dug, as well as Muntz’ servant dogs are aided by collars that vocalize their thoughts. This has been one of the more popular elements of the movie since its release and is played nicely and not TOO cleverly. Carl’s grumpiness (expertly voiced by Ed Asner) is the Pixar-perfected comedic element that audiences of all ages can relate to. Pixar’s animators and artists have once again created a beautiful world for their characters to engage their adventures in. (This time around, they invoke colorful and abstract visuals reminiscent of The Incredibles over WALL-E’s almost photographic realism.)

Up is the quintessential story of life being a journey not a destination. Carl realizes that his house is NOT all that he has left of Ellie, that their life together was the adventure they both had dreamed of and that still had some living to do himself. Paradise Falls was just an elusive fantasy, maintained to keep them youthful and adventurous. You shouldn’t spend your life building up a dream so much that you forget how rewarding real life can be pursuing your dreams. (There’s also an obvious subtext that the house represents Ellie’s spirit, which hangs over Carl’s head as both his driving spiritual force but an emotional weight that he must eventually let go of.) The filmmakers never bang you over the head with these messages, but let the maturer viewers leave the film finding it in themselves. And inevitably to impart in their own wide-eyed children who envision their own magical journeys.

At this point, I’d have to say that Pixar’s core creative team (John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Bob Peterson, Pete Docter, Brad Bird, Lee Unkrich) have become so legendarily good, that they transcend the genre of animation and could be considered the architects of some of cinema’s best stories in the modern era. When you add in the artistry and technological development, you’ve easily got the most influential and successful film studio operating these days. With no place to go but…Up!

★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

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