Pixar is a film company that is redefining family movies, but they are also forcing the rest of us to redefine how we classify movies in general. Up is a perfect example of this. At first glance, it has all the tired clichés of almost every other animated movie: the grumpy old man, the spunky kid, the gravel-voiced Britishy villain, and the dopey comedy relief animal sidekicks. Fortunately, Up is really nothing like any other movie.
Yes, there are many similarities. There have been movies that revolve around the despair and emptiness that a husband feels after his wife has died, and there have been movies where talking dogs perpetrate goofy high-jinks in pursuit of treats – but this is surely the first time that a film truly supports and truly needs both plotlines.
In fact, it’s a great testimony to the storytelling talent behind Pixar’s team that Up takes place in a world where childlessness, eminent domain, and death are painfully real, and yet thrilling zeppelin chases through the trackless jungle are also real. It’s an impressive feat, but not only does the great fun and great depth perfectly mesh, each aspect of the film is strengthened by the others, however incongruous they might seem at first.
Note: This story analysis contains many spoilers.
The film opens with Carl Fredrickson’s whole life, shown flashing by from early childhood to old age. He is a man defined by his love for his wife, and by their combined thirst for adventure – adventure in the classic swashbuckling style – but the joys and tragedies of everyday life postpone all of their grand plans until Carl is a tired old widower. He never gave his wife what he thought she wanted, his house is surrounded by skyscrapers, and civil busybodies are trying to ship him off to a retirement home.
With nothing left to lose, he launches his house on a last bid to fulfill his promise to his wife Ellie; to go on their big adventure to South America. With her pictures on the wall and her adventure journal in hand, he discovers a small snag. Russell, the eight-year-old urban boy scout, has accidentally stowed away on the porch.
When the house lands in South America, Carl is torn between his desire to reach his adventurous final destination and his mundane duty to keep an eye on Russell. Irritated by every wonderful distraction along the way, his spirits are lifted only when he meets his childhood hero, the elderly but still bold and intrepid dirigible pilot Charles Muntz.
However, decades of hunting an elusive quarry with only his canine guards for company have changed Muntz from a charmingly eccentric explorer into a glory-obsessed madman. This betrayal is yet another broken dream for Carl, and he and Russell have to flee for their lives.
However, these heightened stakes force Carl to take his responsibilities more seriously, and from this perspective he begins to realize what Ellie knew all along. As he pages through her adventure journal, he sees photographs of their lives. She wasn’t waiting for a trip to a far-off location to provide adventure – her life with Carl was an adventure. This is the film’s message; adventure doesn’t require some epic trek or exotic holy grail goal because life’s true adventures exist in everyday events and experiences and relationships.
This suddenly understood truth makes Carl a new man. Now he can be the father-figure that Russell needs, stand up to Muntz, and make dogs obey his commands! Ironically, it’s the realization that adventures don’t need to be action-packed quests that actually catapults Carl into the giant swashbuckling finale, but nevertheless, the lesson is still clear.
Another strong theme of the film is one of fatherhood. Ellie’s inability to have children is the first setback of the film, and this is presented as being almost as tragic as her death. Likewise, it turns out that the apparently wilderness-loving scout Russell is only desperate to win his final badge because the awarding ceremony is one of the few times he can see his divorced father.
In a very poignant moment, he reveals how he treasures the quiet and “boring” moments with his Dad afterwards far more than the exciting process of actually winning the badges. This is an extremely thought-provoking statement for Carl, and it helps him to understand the nobility of the commonplace and that he and Russell both need each other.
And so, what looks like a crazy cartoon movie about the wilderness of South America is one of the strongest depictions of family and purpose ever put on film. In fact, a five-minute montage at the top of the film has more to say about love and marriage, joy and loss, and dreams and sacrifice than any film of the last decade, and that’s without any dialog.
The Toy Story films, Monsters Inc, and Finding Nemo have all had strong themes related to the brevity of childhood and often a fear of growing old. Even Cars revolved around a nostalgic take on the forgotten past. As powerful as those themes are, Up seems to be past that. After all, Carl is already an old man. This does not matter; he’s going to continue having adventures with Russell, and any change is part of the adventure. Carl’s past sorrows are still there, but there’s no wistful apprehension about the future. In this way, Up is a very hopeful film.
Two years ago I wrote a review of Ratatouille which mentioned how I thought that Pixar’s own story might have influenced their take on Gusteau’s almost-successor. Up is their second post-Disney project, and I think it may reflect a more settled, hopeful position, and certainly a more mature storytelling style. Pete Docter and Bob Peterson have excelled themselves technically, and artistically, and in doing so, made one of the most pro-family, pro-children, pro-happiness films ever.
They’ve done what most movies don’t dare attempt. Most comedy genre films, almost by definition, can’t depict real tragedy; setbacks have to be minor, temporary, or presented as uncomfortable jokes in and of themselves. Modern tragedies tend to communicate sadness with inevitable despair and utter hopelessness, and any jokes must be grim and dark to preserve the mood. Through superior writing, Up manages to show us both without weakening the message.
Plus, because the film takes place in an emotionally-realistic setting, rather than rose-colored screwball world of constant comedy, the jokes are actually funnier. And in this world where funny things happen naturally, sad events are genuinely sad, and far more tragic than they would be in a genre where total gloom is the universal constant. Maintaining this delicate of balance of emotional truth is tough, especially in a film with goofy birds and balloon-carried houses, but Up never wavers.