Perhaps it’s time to stop wondering and simply believe. Every year, like cinematic clockwork, we critics hear about the latest release pending from Pixar and our thoughts notoriously turn to the big question – will this be the one? Will this be the computer-generated title from the company that literally invented the genre type to fail to live up to audience expectations? Nay, could it be the well-meaning movie from Lassiter and crew that actually fails? Well, those looking for the bullseye on the back of these geniuses can definitely rest easy. Up is not the target for an elongated discussion on the company’s first failure. Instead, it’s yet another trophy in a digital display case loaded with such accolades. It’s as serious as Wall-E, as action packed as The Incredibles, and hides a mysterious core of sadness which the company has never really explored – until now.
For Carl Fredrickson, old age has its trials. He’s recently lost his wife, and with that, the will to live, and a construction concern is trying to kick him out of his house. A momentary act of self-defense has the court interceding, and it looks like he will have to move after all these years. But Carl remembers a promise he made to his dear departed Ellie at the start of their life together, and he’s determined to make it happen. Tying balloons to his house, he lifts the building from its foundation and plots a course for South America. Unfortunately, earnest Wilderness Scout Russell “accidentally” tags along for the ride. Upon arrival, Carl has one goal – to get the house to the top of a gorgeous waterfall his late spouse idolized. But when a huge bird stumbles into their path, and with it an aging adventurer and his pack of trained dogs, our elderly hero and his under-aged sidekick must save the creature…and the day.
At its core, Up is a movie about putting the past in perspective. Not necessarily leaving it behind, or forgetting about it all together, but more about gaining perspective, about seeing the truth of what came before, not the myth or the self-made legacy. It’s the basic element that drives all three human characters. For Carl, it’s his house and his love for late wife Ellie that leads him to take his airborne risk. It’s also the motivation for some of his more mean-spirited acts. For young Russell, it’s the cogent memory of sitting with his now distant dad, eating ice cream and counting cars in best father/son bonding mode. And for ex-celebrity adventurer turned vindictive bad man Charles Muntz, it’s justification for decades as a laughing stock. Resolution will come at a price for all, yet the real meat of Up is not the endgame, but the journey toward such finality.
And this is a road not easily traversed. There will be pain, hardship, heartache, and even death along the way. Up is perhaps the first Pixar film to mix the full blown fantastic with the all too real. The opening montage establishing Carl and Ellie’s life is so poignant, so stocked with telling little details that when we reach the inevitable climax, we experience the loss just as deeply as our hero. Similarly, Russell’s story about his dad delivers the kind of well-observed empathy that Pixar does best. The material here is borderline maudlin, a little too much for such a supposed kid flick to bear. But because directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson do such a extraordinary job of keeping everything balanced and in focus, we allow the sentiment to stay.
As with any bit of escapism, there are a few logic leaps that have to be made in order to maintain one’s entertainment perspective. Carl does some mighty agile things for a man his age, and little lump of lard Russell could hardly be physically adept at some of the challenges he overcomes. Perhaps the greatest suspension of disbelief is reserved for Charles, considering he was an adult when Carl was a small kid. His reappearance, while expected, crafts questions that Up is not capable – or willing, or needs – to answer. We just have to assume that this Depression-era hero has the mental wherewithal to train hundreds of dogs to obey his commands (including cooking and cleaning) as well as retrofit them with self-invented electronic collars that translate their every crude canine thought into words.
In fact, Pixar makes it easy to believe. Crafting characters that are instantly likeable and quickly identifiable, we come to appreciate Carl’s cold look on life, Russell’s never-ending optimism – even Charles’ outrageous villainy. Up is the first Pixar movie where blood is visibly shed, where injuries appear life-threatening and death is dealt with in clear, concise beats. It’s hard to imagine kids understanding the depth of the despair on display – they will be easily swayed by the bright colors, inventive imagery, and standard comic supporting player antics (in this case, a gorgeously goofy bird named Kevin and a cute talking cur named Dug). Yet there will be a few life lessons learned as well, especially since Pixar does not pull back on the cruelties within its cartoon world.
Don’t get the wrong idea, however. This is not darkness to merely buck the family film entertainment trend. Instead, this is Pixar trying something wholly unique, an approach that few films within, or outside the company (with, perhaps, the exception of last year’s ferocious and violent Kung Fu Panda) can claim. Because of what Carl represents (the promise to a fallen love) and the way he goes about reclaiming his worth, we don’t mind the bitter reminders of what could have been. Indeed, the entire methodology of this film is to expose the truth behind the well-worn façade of failure. Up is actually about rediscovering your soul, or surviving the worst and making the most of it. It’s funny, illuminating, deft, accomplished, mesmerizing, warm, and in the end, as inspiring as its title.
Leave it to Pixar to, once again, thwart expectation. Nothing offered in the trailer or TV ads will prepare you for the joys found here. It’s par for the corporate course, actually. Think back about your first awareness of something like Ratatouille, or Wall-E. Both films seemed lifted out of premises that played better in the creator’s mind – a rat that wants to be a chef, a robot who wants to find companionship – than on movie screens. A few million dollars and a couple of Oscars later proved that possibility dead wrong. Now comes the unusual tale of a man who wants to save his house, keep a promise he made years ago, and travel to South America – and he does so by rigging thousands of balloons to his chimney and simply taking off. Not the most enthralling of ideas, right? Well, luckily the Pixar proof is in the execution pudding, and it’s a delicious, addictive treat.