Up, 2009. Directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson. Written by Bob Peterson. With the voices of Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer, and Bob Peterson.
Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction. —Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Carl and Ellie Fredericksen have been married a very long time. At the opening of Pixar’s wonderful Up, we see the young Carl gazing in rapt attention at a newsreel of his favorite hero, Charles Muntz. Muntz, dressed like Charles Lindbergh but looking like Adolphe Menjou, is an explorer who jumps into his fabulous dirigible The Spirit of Adventure to search for the bones of the great and mysterious animals of the jungle, past and present. The explorer is in trouble: his latest discovery is called a fraud, he is disgraced, and vanishes into the misty Venezuelan jungle to prove his innocence. After the show, little Carl pretends to be the great Muntz, leaping over tree stumps and cracks in the sidewalk, when he also runs headlong into Ellie, a girl his age who is equally enamored of exploring, and the redoubtable Muntz. A friendship ensues. The friendship grows into love. The love quickens into marriage. The adventure begins.
We live in glorious times. The Pixar Animation studios keep making movies that are consistent and thunderous joys—none of their movies have been anything less than entertaining, and twice now this studio has created absolute masterpieces (both by Brad Bird: The Incredibles and Ratatouille.) Up fits right in with the best of them, not perfect, but a moving, complicated, and exciting film that will make children want to fly in a balloon house and adults realize that perhaps the house they live in now, with all its attendant headaches and pleasures, already soars through the atmosphere.
The facts: Up opens beautifully. The Pixar People have the newsreel down pat, and we see the story of Charles Muntz played out in “Movieland News”, a nod to the Hearst newsreels and to Orson Welles’ parody in Citizen Kane. As mentioned, young Carl falls for his Ellie because of a shared love for Muntz, and in a lovely montage, rich with the details of married life, we see these two grow old together. We see them repair an old, dilapidated house; dream of having a big family; when that dream falls apart, their dream shifts to taking a trip to Venezuela.
But life intrudes, as life often does: they’re constantly breaking into their savings to fix the car, for a health issue, to repair the house. Finally, they’ve saved enough but it is too late: Ellie is sick, and finally dies. Carl is left alone in his old house, surrounded by memories, and worse, surrounded by a giant, ugly development that threatens to crush the old out of the picture.
One day, a construction worker breaks Carl’s mailbox (which was hand-painted by him and Ellie), and he flips out, smacking the worker on the head and bloodying him. It’s a terrifying scene: we see people move in, not to help the poor worker or to calm Carl, but rotten folks who know that this is their moment, the time when Carl has gone too far and can be forced into a retirement center, his home bulldozed at last. By now you know the story: Carl, a balloon salesman, fills thousands of balloons up and floats away on his house.
An accident of fate has Russell, a Wilderness Explorer (a less homophobic version of the Boy Scouts one hopes), stuck on Carl’s front porch. The old fellow and the accidental stowaway fight storms and end up in Venezuela, near Angel Falls, and eventually meet the mysterious Charles Muntz and his army of talking dogs.
The opening of Up fuses the best of Wall*E and Ratatouille: the marriage montage reminded me of the long speech in the latter, which moved me considerably but which seemed to be over the heads of children. The cynicism toward the end of Up’s opening was straight from Wall*E (which I admit to enjoying, but not loving.) Carl is up against LazerTan and SushiExpress across the street, his house the last bulwark against the encroaching cheapness of modern society.
Up is gorgeous, but not in the way of any other animated film today. Like every Pixar creation, details reign supreme. It is not enough to make sure that every leaf and drop of water is meticulously rendered. Rather, it is the little details that make up Pixar films: the kitchen in Ratatouille, the mountains of garbage in Wall*E, and here, the home of Carl and Ellie. Picture frames, bottles of medicine, mail, a phone that’s twenty years old, all the detritus of a couple who have lived in one place for five decades. Above the fireplace are the smudges of soot from years of cozy blazes, the chairs are worn in just the right spots, and even Carl, as the days progress, grows an uneven five o’clock shadow. After all, when would he have time to shave? All of the details flesh out the people who run amok in any Pixar film.
Carl drags his floating house with him everywhere, and even speaks to it—in a very real sense, it is the spirit of his wife and best friend. As he stumbles along with Russell, in search of Angel Falls and making every sort of mistake, we realize how Ellie would have helped in virtually every situation. These two were a team, and now they’re one short. Ellie is gone, and has no speaking part, and yet she hovers over everything. She was the outgoing one, the spark in the engine to his thumping piston.
Up is about the strength of marriage, even when that marriage has suffered from the inevitable loss of life. Unfortunately, Up disappoints slightly because it begins with such promise. Though I loved this movie, and highly recommend it, as with Wall*E, a great opening devolves into a roller-coaster adventure. Where the subtle thrills of marriage are championed at the get-go, having Carl and Russell racing over rocks and being chased by talking dogs is a bit jarring. Charles Muntz, sadly, becomes a vision of pure evil, and suddenly the adventure involves some often ridiculous escapes. Those who thought Harrison Ford was a bit spry for his age in the last Indiana Jones ain’t seen nothin’ yet: Carl, who begins as a realistic old man, suddenly is climbing ladders, racing about on dirigibles, flying and tumbling over rocks, and it’s a bit much.
It’s a bit much because it distracts from the real adventure at hand. The marriage of Carl and Ellie is beautiful, and it serves notice to parents and their kids that this is how it is done. You dream together, sacrifice together, and even after tragedy, the strength of this union will carry you through. You don’t need fights in the sky and talking dogs: the scene of Ellie stumbling in the opening montage summoned from the little girl next to me a greater gasp of surprise than anything in the jungle.
And yet I nitpick. Up is the best Pixar film outside the Brad Bird duo. Watch it with your kids, watch it with your spouse, and understand that, through our love and labors, we fly.