I am a sucker for Pixar movies. I was first introduced to their short films when I was a film student at the University of Utah. From the simplicity of Luxor Jr. to the madcap slapstick in Knick Knack, I knew the filmmakers at Pixar were doing something special. From the simple friendship of Buzz and Woody, to the story of two robots falling in love, I have enjoyed all of Pixar's films. I can't choose a favorite, how can you? I can say that CARS and A Bugs Life are my two least favorites, but a lesser Pixar film is better than 95% than other films, and I include live action as well as animated films in that equation.
With UP though, we have a movie about a man grieving over his dead wife and learning to overcome that grief and find new adventures to live. As much as I love the first Toy Story, we've come a really long way in storytelling from toys that come to life when no one is around and talking bugs striving to save their colony. That's what I love about Pixar, they are constantly progressing, always pushing new stories, new emotions and new ways to share those human emotions with their audience.
The thing that sets Pixar apart from so many studios, is that they dare. They risk. They don't listen to focus groups about marketing potential, they just tell stories. They made a film about a rat who wants to cook. A film with robots where there is no dialogue for about 1/3 of the film. What other studio would even dare to pitch such stories to management, let alone greenlight them, develop them with love and attention to detail and still make money at the box office?
The key to Pixar films though, is story. I attended a lecture with Doug Sweetland a few months ago (Director of the Pixar short "Presto" and he talked of Pixar's constant devotion to story. They work around the clock on story for years before they even begin to animate. There is even a sign in the lobby at Pixar that states simply "Story is King". Each word, each space between words means something, it builds the character, propels the story and entertains the audience.
In UP, the filmmakers of Pixar have gone above and beyond. They tell the story of Carl Fredrickson, a 78 year old man that lives alone and doesn't like being bothered. However, there is much more to Carl than being an animated version of Walter Walter Matthau from "Grumpy OId Men", there is much more. From here on out, I will be writing with heavy spoilers, so if you haven't seen the film yet, you may want to avoid reading further. Honestly, the less you know about this movie going into it, the better it is. I knew only a little from the trailers and I wished I could have avoided even that much.
The film opens with a young Carl viewing a newsreal about his favorite adventurer Charles Muntz and his recent adventures in South America who claims to have discovered a giant bird that scientists say can't possibly exist. Muntz swears to travel back to Paradise Falls and capture a live bird and won't return until he can restore his good name. Carl is mesmerized by the story and that love of adventure, leads this shy boy to meeting a girl that will become the love of his life, Ellie.
Ellie is everything Carl isn't. Loud,rambunctious, outspoken and driven and of course he falls head over heels for her immediately. The film now shifts into an absolutely beautifully filmed and edited montage where we watch Ellie and Carl fall in love, get married, discover they cannot have children, vow to visit Paradise Falls, work at the zoo where Carl sells balloons and Ellie shows off the birds, get old and
eventually Ellie's death. That's a lot to pack into less than 10 minutes, and not only do the animators pull it off, it is one of the most beautifully touching sequences that I have ever seen. They give us more character analysis, background, and depth in those few short minutes than many films pull off in their entire running time.
Pixar doesn't shy away from tough subjects, but they handle it so delicately, it is breathtaking. Ellie and Carl lay on a hill and view shapes in the clouds. Ellie sees a turtle, and Carl points out a cloud that looks like a baby. Ellie nods and then points out that many of the clouds look that way. A dissolve to a doctor's office where Ellie is crying and Carl looks devestated, and in just a few short seconds, we understand that Carl and Ellie have fertility issues and won't be able to have children of their own. It's so brief, but it says so much and handled with such class. As one who has been on the receiving end of that news, it hit me like a sucker punch to the gut. I rarely cry in movies, but I instantly had tears flowing down my cheeks. I was overcome.
The montage goes on to show us that Ellie and Carl
go on to live a perfectly wonderful life, full of time together, living in old abandoned house they'd discovered as children, fixing it up and saving up money for a trip of a lifetime to Paradise Falls. Carl promised Ellie that he would take her there one day, and even crossed his heart on it. Unfortunately, real life settles in as it always does and Carl and Ellie are forced to slowly spend their vacation money on home repairs, new tires for the car, hospital bills, etc. Near the end of the montage, Ellie becomes ill and passes away and sets up the theme for the rest of the film about love, loss and moving on.
The film could end there, and it would be amazing, but the story has many more surprises for the audience. UP becomes about following your childhood dreams, a floating house, talking dogs, a bird that loves chocolate and adventure. It's the most unique of all the Pixar films, in that our hero is 78 years old.
Carl as a child, has a very round face, and as the years progress, he becomes more and more square. It's almost like he has deflated like a balloon and he is hunched over, has trouble getting out of bed, uses a walker, etc. Everything around Carl is square, even the picture frames that hang on the walls of his home. As we move further in the film, we get a less square shapes and more circular, suggesting movement, freedom and adventure. Russell whole body, all the balloons, etc. As the film progresses, Carl stands straighter, moves quicker, and finds that there are new adventures for him. It's everything that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull should have been.
We eventually meet Carl's childhood hero Muntz, and he is a recluse obsessed with capturing that elusive bird and restoring his good name. Is it too obvious to point out his name sounds a lot like Kurtz? His only companions are dogs with collars that translate their thoughts to speech. He is a man consumed with the past and unwilling to move on and sets up a brilliant counterpoint to Carl.
At one point, Carl must find a way to lighten the load in his house, in order to go after Russell the Wilderness Explorer that tagged along for the ride. Carl finds Ellie's adventure book, and for the first time ever, looks past the page that says "Things I am going to do". He sees their wedding photos, shots of them at work at the zoo, the two of them reading together, a shot of Ellie looking peacefully outside a window, and finally a note that reads "Thank you for the wonderful adventure, now go have one of your own." Once again, I teared up at the simplicity of the message, the gentleness of the delivery and the beauty of the animation. It's hard to believe a computer ran a program made up of ones and zeroes and created something so beautiful.
This sequence reminded me very much of "The Fountain" in that a dying wife gives her husband permission to move beyond her death and continue to live. Throughout the film, I thought about "The Mission" and "Aguirre, the Wrath of God" and after the film Lisa told me that I must be the only person to watch a Pixar film and think of those two films. :)
Carl then goes through the house and is able to finally let got of all the items that he held so dear, for so long. Items that he tied down during the storm are deposited onto the plateau of Paradise Falls and the house then begins to lift back off. It's such a simple way to symbolize what is internally happening to our character.
In the end, Carl is even able to let the house that he has called Ellie throughout the film, to float gently away as he pilots an airship with Russell who has become the son he never had, back to the United States. Russell tells Carl that he is sorry he lost the house, to which Carl replies "It's just a house." We witness what the characters do not, and that is that the house has landed at the edge of Paradise Falls, just as Ellie wanted it to.
The film is full of humor, wit, and especially heart. There is so much more I could write about this film, but this blog post is already way too long, and it's late at night, so I will simply say that UP is a beautiful film, that deserves multiple viewings. It is another classic Pixar film, and I am once again reminded of how powerful film as a medium can be. It's not just a child's film, it's not just an animated film, it's a film about the human spirit, of childhood dreams, of love, of keeping promises and most of all hope. It helps reinforce a feeling that I have been having more and more of, and that is so many people judge success on net worth, instead of self worth and that makes all the difference. It's not the possessions that we buy, but the time spent with loved ones. There is adventure all around us, if we just take the time to see it. As Russell tells Carl about sitting on a curb eating ice cream with his father "That may seem boring, but it's the boring stuff that I seem to remember." That's deep stuff for an animated film, and it works perfectly.
Bravo Pixar, and thank you.