I have had only one bad experience with a Pixar film. On a flight from Gothenburg to Newark that stopped for three hours in a small airport in upstate New York—heavy rain prevented our landing in Jersey—the crew blasted Toy Story 2 through every monitor and speaker in the plane. As I sat cramped and painfully aware of my shattered plans for the day (and, of course, the stewardesses had run out of beer), suddenly Mr. Potato Head’s jokes just weren’t funny, and I momentarily cursed Pixar.
I was anticipating another painful experience as I pulled into the dreaded megaplex to see Pixar's newest film, Up. The ticket vendor couldn't understand that I was attending the movie alone and repeatedly warned me of the difficulty of finding several seats in a row. I decided to pay the extra money for the 3D version and was handed what looked like a pair of imitation Ray Ban Wayfarers. I purchased my obligatory blue-raspberry Icee and made my way through the crowds of high schoolers and families, all carrying bus-tubs of popcorn and soda, into the theater. I found a seat in between a family of seven and a kid whose parents had apparently not introduced her to deodorant. A headache emerged as I watched hamburgers fly out of the screen during the preview for Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs in 3D, and I considered telling my editor to go to hell and wait 6 months for the DVD to come out. But I’m glad I didn’t. Pixar, it seems, is incapable of making bad films, and with Up, Pixar has delivered another first rate animated movie. I soon forgot about sweaty kids and whiney babies.
Up tells the story of Carl Frederickson (voiced by Ed Asner), an old, crotchety man who, with the help of a small Asian-American boy, Russell, uses hundreds of balloons to fly his house to South America. The movie opens in a theater in the 1930s where Carl, then a boy, sits watching a newsreel on the exploits of the famous explorer Charles Muntz, an Indiana Jones type character who had discovered the skeleton of an enormous bird at Paradise Falls in South America. Not long after the discovery, Scientists dubbed the find a fraud, and Muntz vowed to spend the rest of his life tracking down the creature to rectify his reputation. He boards his zeppelin and takes off for Paradise Falls. Soon after leaving the theater, Carl meets Ellie, a spunky girl reminiscent of Pippi Longstocking, who shares his Muntz obsession. They become fast friends and she invites Carl to join her Explorers Club, and then makes him promise to go with her to Paradise Falls someday.
The film continues with a short montage of Carl and Ellie's life together, from their marriage, to the zoo, where Carl sells balloons and Ellie works as a zookeeper, to the doctor's office, where presumably they realize they cannot have kids, to middle-age, to late life. In almost all of the scenes, we see a change jar filling up little by little with savings designated for a trip to Paradise Falls. But sadly, Ellie dies before they can take the trip. The montage ends with Carl crying in the church. And I thought this was a kids’ film.
Carl is left alone in his house, which is now engulfed in construction as a developer surrounds him with high-rises. Though Carl refuses to sell the house, the court orders him into a retirement home after he injures a construction worker with his walker. On the day of his forced exile, Carl manages to spring his house loose from its foundation with a flock of helium-filled balloons, spiriting it into the air. Once and for all, he is determined to fulfill his and Ellie's dream and visit Paradise Falls.
After a moment of incredulous exhilaration, Carl suddenly notices that, accidentally in tow, is Russell, a Wilderness Explorer (think Weeblo scout with Girl-Scout merit badge sash) who is trying to earn his "assisting-the-elderly" badge. The rest of the film chronicles their quirky journey to Paradise Falls, where they encounter the mythical bird that Muntz had discovered (Russell names her "Kevin") and the aged Muntz with a pack of dogs that can speak with the help of their electronic collars. (This last bit sounds ridiculous, but the viewer has already accepted a floating house; why not talking dogs, too?)
Though Russell and the talking dogs appeal to the younger audience members, Pixar took a chance by making the central protagonist an old man. Director Pete Doctor (who also directed Monster’s, Inc. ) and Ed Asner do a wonderful job of creating in Carl the stereotypical Walter Matthau character. You know the type—a half-dozen locks on the front door, a militant adherence to a daily routine, a deep suspicion of all things new, and a general annoyance with kids ("We're gonna get to the falls. No rap music or flash dancing!"). Pixar’s gamble works because we’ve all known a grumpy old man before; children will most likely associate Carl with a grandfather or a great uncle.
Up manages to engage the imagination of children and adults, but it also asks some pretty heavy questions through the character development of Carl, notably about death and the loneliness of its survivors. Though Ellie, Carl’s wife, plays only a minor role in the beginning of the movie, it is clear that she was the source for his vivacity for life. Without her, he slumps into old routines and talks to himself, trying to keep her alive in his imagination. When Carl and Russell run into problems on their journey to Paradise Falls, Carl often looks to the house and asks Ellie for advice. The house is all that remains of Ellie. (In one scene, as the floating house hits a turbulent storm, Carl's main concern is not with his safety but with preventing the various mementos of his marriage from crashing to the ground.) Carl is about to be whisked away to a retirement home and will not be able to preserve the tangible, surviving manifestation of Ellie: the house. So, Carl transports his house away from humanity to Paradise Falls, where the two had fixed their imaginations all those years.
Just when they think they are in the clear, Charles Muntz turns on them. Convinced that Carl and Russell are trying to steal his glory by finding the bird first, he sets fire to the house, pops the balloons, and captures Russell. In order to keep the house afloat and pursue Muntz’s zeppelin, Carl throws the furniture out of the house. Of course, in throwing out the furniture, he is also saying goodbye to Ellie.
Charles Muntz is Carl's isolationist dream carried to its logical end. Muntz chooses the quest for the rare bird over humanity just as Carl would turn his back on society and die trying to live out his and Ellie's dream of making it to Paradise Falls. But unlike Muntz, who dies trying to capture the mythical bird, Carl learns to let go of the physical vestiges of his old life. Though sometimes the images, as obvious as they are, are profound, Up never takes itself too seriously. By using a space reserved for levity and play—an animated comedy—the film’s peripheral reflections on death and grieving are incisive but deft.
The humor of the film—especially the talking dogs, which are responsible for some the funniest moments—doesn't lend itself well to summary. The quality of the animation (such as the clarity and realism of dust particles flying out of the house's vent) must be witnessed. The story is clever and imaginative. But the ultimate beauty of Up is that it extends the imagination into the realms of the fantastic while remaining firmly grounded in humanity and relationships. Though Carl initially dislikes Russell (at the beginning of the film, he strings together some bed sheets to try to lower Russell back down to The City), he eventually finds a new enthusiasm for life and for people through the kid. The film ends with Carl and Russell back in The City, having escaped Muntz and piloted his zeppelin back to North America. Carl even shows up at Russell’s merit badge ceremony and awards him the Ellie badge, a grape soda pin that Ellie had given Carl when they were kids. The film’s final shot zooms in on Carl and Russell enjoying an ice-cream on the curb, delighting in each other's company and in watching the mundane passing of cars. With a smile on my face, I wiped the tears from my eyes underneath my 3D glasses (which I did dutifully put in the recycling container to “stay green”) and promptly got lost in the megaplex parking lot.