It was pointed out to me by my sister earlier today that Carl Frederickson, the 78 year-old protagonist of Pixar’s latest release Up, looks like our grandfather. Granted, our grandfather is a few years older, but the hair and the ridiculous eyebrows are right, as is the generally curmudgeonly personality. Also like Carl, he lost his beloved wife some years ago, a woman full of joy and spirit, and hasn’t been quite the same since. Carl himself is childless, but it’s doubtful that I’m the only one whom he tenderly reminds of an elderly relative. Such is another fine example of the uncanny ability most Pixar films have in exploring human feelings, in a way emotionally bankrupt live action films such as Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and Bride Wars don’t care enough about their audiences to attempt.
Up opens with young Carl, who imagines himself a great adventurer, meeting Ellie, a neighborhood tomboy and fellow adventurer who makes him promise that they’ll someday travel together to Paradise Falls, “a land lost in time” somewhere in Venezuela. Carl and Ellie eventually grow up and marry, and as we see in a sweetly heartbreaking montage, despite their having a happy, largely ordinary life together, too many of the everyday nuisances, such as car repairs and medical bills, keep getting in the way of their dreams of travel and exploration. Ellie eventually passes away, leaving Carl (voiced in old age by Edward Asner) lonely and bitter at all their adventures left unfulfilled.
Just before he’s forced out of his home by construction developers, Carl decides to throw caution to the wind and go to Venezuela, using a most unusual method of travel: he tethers thousands of balloons to his house, lifting it from its moorings and into the sky. A smooth liftoff is interrupted with the discovery that he has a stowaway on board–Russell (Jordan Nagai), a roly-poly Wilderness Explorer who is determined to earn his badge for assisting the elderly. Carl, annoyed at Russell’s presence but determined not to turn back, keeps foraging ahead on the journey, landing at Paradise Falls after a rough storm. Alas, they’re on the wrong side of the falls, so they begin the second, more laborious leg of their adventure, walking to the other side of the falls while literally dragging the house behind them, tethered with a garden hose. Along the way Carl and Russell meet an exotic, rainbow-colored bird separated from her children, as well as Dug (Bob Peterson), a friendly, though not very bright dog who can talk with the aid of a special electronic collar.
Dug’s master is Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), Carl’s former childhood hero, who has spent years in Paradise Falls trying to capture the bird who willingly attaches itself to Carl and Russell. Initially charming to his guests, he turns ruthless when it comes to the bird, placing both Carl and his young charge in grave danger. When things seem bleakest and Carl believes himself to have failed in his attempt to honor Ellie’s memory, he discovers that Ellie herself regretted nothing about their life together, viewing it as the grandest adventure of all. Before I get all teary-eyed again, I’ll stop here and leave the rest of what happens for you to see for yourself.
Last year’s WALL·E left me a blithering, sobbing wreck, in the best way possible, so Up had a lot to live up to. It almost made it. If the entire movie had been devoted to Carl and Ellie’s marriage, I would have happily watched it. The central plot, particularly when it becomes a standard chase/avoid the bad guys picture is slightly formulaic, but the core message is so touching and relevant I was willing to let it slide. We wrack ourselves with guilt over experiences we should be having, places we should be seeing, things we should be doing but can’t because we’re too busy dealing with the aggravating minutiae of life, forgetting that those seemingly minor, meaningless moments are part of the adventure itself. It’s hard to maintain that perspective when we have to keep putting off that trip we want to go on or that fancy dinner we want to go to because stuff keeps coming up. It’s so important for our hearts and spirits that we do.
As is usually the case with Pixar movies, the voice performances are all strong. Dog lovers will be amused at the stilted way Dug speaks, such as his attempt to tell a joke: “A squirrel says to a tree, ‘I have stored no nuts in you for the winter, and now I am dead.’ It is funny because the squirrel is dead.” Up touches on a startling amount of adult matters for what is ostensibly a children’s movie–death, aging, loneliness, divorce, even infertility–and no doubt, like the previously mentioned WALL·E there will be some parents who will complain that their children are entirely too delicate and sensitive to handle such subjects. If you have any amount of faith in your child, or in yourself, really, to understand that not everything about life is unicorns and cotton candy, but it can be pretty wonderful a lot of the time, you’ll enjoy it. For everyone else, did you know there’s going to be a sequel to Alvin and the Chipmunks?