upIt’s become a cliché to say that Pixar is the most consistently wonderful creative force in cinema today. But like many clichés, it’s a cliché for a reason… and Up — the studio’s tenth film — is the latest example of why they leave everybody else in the dust.

I won’t bother with a detailed recap of the film’s plot. Most people who read this will have seen the film already, and if you haven’t you should go do so instead of reading about it here. Very quick synopsis: elderly widower Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) travels in his house via helium balloons to the South American paradise he and his wife always planned to visit. A nerdy and needy kid winds up as an accidental stowaway. Adventures, laughs and life lessons ensue.

OK, that’s done. Now on to some of the things I found special about this film.

The movie opens with a cute meet-up between the young Carl and an adventurous little girl named Ellie. They hit it off and the next ten minutes or so are a wordless montage of their life together, from young adulthood through old age. Accompanied only by Michael Giacchino’s typically sublime music, the filmmakers sketch out a relationship full of highs and lows, dreams hatched and deferred. It’s as devastating and emotional a sequence as any I’ve seen in years — easily the equal of the powerful ‘When She Loved Me’ montage in Toy Story 2. As a piece of visual storytelling, it sets up not just the main character but the entire premise of the film — something you don’t realize until the end.

It’s ballsy, and a bit dangerous, to deliver your most powerful stuff right out of the gate. The rest of the film could wind up one big letdown. But that doesn’t happen here. The opening sequence instead carries the rest of the film on its back, investing us immediately in the poignant journey to come.

Early on in the film, when Carl is being hounded to sell his property to make way for a high-rise, we get a brief moment of violence as he defends his precious home by lashing out at a construction worker. The worker is injured, and the streak of red on his forehead jumped out at me as possibly the first blood I’d ever seen in a Pixar film. I later recalled Dory’s nosebleed in Finding Nemo and some action violence in The Incredibles, but this moment felt uncomfortably real.

And that segues into the other thing I find so fascinating about Up, which is the dichotomy between that harsh reality — and the achingly real emotions Carl feels for his wife — and the utterly fantastic journey he embarks on.

Consider: This man lifts a house off the ground with helium balloons, flies to South America in what seems like hours, navigates a heavy lightning storm with balloons intact, carries the house around with him after landing and encounters talking dogs (thanks to advanced collar technology), a giant multi-hued bird and a man who must be over 100 years old but moves around like he’s half that age. I read one reviewer who said he expected the film to end with Carl waking up in a nursing home having imagined his adventure… echoes of The Wizard of Oz.

I think there’s something to that, though I haven’t wrapped my mind completely around it. There is heavy symbolism here, whether the events are literal or not. Carl’s house represents not just the beautiful life he shared there with Ellie but the lonely shell he built around himself after her death — and that is the baggage he literally drags behind him for most of the film.

I’m tempted to view the whole film as an allegory, albeit one that works splendidly as an action comedy in the tradition of Pixar’s best films. It’s a Where the Wild Things Are for the senior citizen set, where the “dream” is as genuine and meaningful as the reality. Real life has broken Carl… it takes the fantastic to put him back together.

I think all of this is summed up beautifully in the double meaning of the name of Carl and Ellie’s dream destination — Paradise Falls.

It does indeed. The trick is knowing how to pick the pieces back… up.

9 thoughts on “Up

  1. Amy says:

    I didn’t read the whole review because we’re going today. I’m just curious -did you take the kids?

  2. Clay says:

    Yes, and they both liked it. Fiona stayed still the whole time.

  3. pegclifton says:

    What a lovely review, I’m thinking if I can get Dad to agree to an animated film, we should see it.

  4. Dana says:

    We just saw the movie, and loved it. Did you see it in 3-D? We did. it was fine in 3-D, but I wouldn’t think it was essential (not sure 3-D ever is) Did you see the Toy Story 3 trailer? Now, THAT is exciting. Can’t wait for that one.

    Anyway, I find the take interesting that this was all a dream, as it didn’t occur to me at all. i think the fact that the film ended with Carl and Russell in a very real life situation back home, still with the dirt on their faces from the adventure suggests you were supposes to think this was “real” (at least as in not a dream). Of course, the many surrealistic aspects of the film certainly stretched reality–the best part was when the dogs were flying the planes, and Amy whispered to me that this might be taking things too far. Yeah, right, THAT’s where it went too far!:) Not the house flying to South America on balloons or talking dogs:)

    As for the old explorer, I was curious as to the age difference, and Amy and I talked about it after. I suppose it is conceivable that he could be only 10-15 years older than Carl, but in better shape because of his wilderness lifestyle. I didn’t think they were trying to make us believe that he was really over 100 as you suggest, though I would have liked some line thrown in by him to explain why he was in such great shape. Of course, it’s worth noting that Carl becomes increasingly more fit and agile through the adventures.

    Anyway, I agree that Pixar has done it again. Agree that the montage was brilliant. This is definitely an upper-tier Pixar movie, which is saying something!

  5. Clay says:

    I don’t think it’s literally a dream but I think it’s deliberately dreamlike. I guess it’s magical realism.

  6. Amy says:

    First, I have to say that your review is fabulous. I feel like going to every movie site I know and leaving a link to it 🙂

    I find myself fascinated as I sit here contemplating how I feel about this discussion and what exactly I want to write how we all collectively seemed to have no problem with…

    1 – a tank full of fish planning an escape to the ocean
    2 – toys that come to life and talk and feel and take journeys – both literal and figurative
    3 – a family with superhero powers, including the ability to become invisible, to become elastic and to run fast enough that you stay on top of the surface of water
    4 – a rat becoming a master chef

    🙂 Not as though Pixar made its name synonomous with creative genius and artistic mastery through stories of striking realism.

    But, of course, Up feels different. And I guess that’s the whole point. When a film starts off with a sequence as powerful as this one does, so grounded in reality, the fantastical journey which follows must be understood within that context. So… do the Pixar masters want us to believe it’s feasible. I’m not sure. I kept worrying about poor Russell’s mom. She must have been frantic wondering what had happened to her son! Were we supposed to be concerned about her?

    Clearly some sort of bond is created between Russell and Carl, or Russell suffers from the lack of it. If this is all Carl’s delusion, then Russell is just the son/grandson he never got to have. But… if Russell is a kid with the problems and insights he shares, then he needs a Carl. I’d hate to think they didn’t find each other in some manner.

    Okay…. I’ve gone on too long. Paradise Falls? I’m gonna have to think some more about all of this.

  7. Clay says:

    Thanks for the compliment. I didn’t intend to review the movie right after seeing it but I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

    One difference between Up (and The Incredibles) and the rest of Pixar’s output is that it takes place entirely in the human world. As you point out, the protagonists of all their other films are non-human. And as good as they are at anthropomorphizing those characters, and connecting with some very human themes, it’s still a step removed.

  8. Amy says:

    Apparently Maddie’s art teacher – her ART TEACHER – said today, “Up was very good for an animated film.”

    Just had to share!

  9. Clay says:

    Good lord… what is wrong with people?

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