It’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.