I want to sit in on a Pixar pitch meeting, just to see how many people in the room think from the beginning that a premise like the one behind Up will end up being a great movie. I think a typical, rational person looks at the idea of an old man tying a bunch of balloons to his house so he can travel to South America as a minor entry in Pixar’s mostly stellar line-up. Lucky for us, Pixar doesn’t believe in minor work. Up, as mentioned, is about an old man (Carl, voiced by Ed Asner) who ties some balloons to his house so he can float to South America—specifically, to Paradise Falls, which he and his wife missed a flight to years before. The heart of Up is not the journey, but why Carl takes it so late in his life.
Before Carl sets off on his trip, we are given his motivation. As a kid, Carl was a big fan of Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), an explorer who finds an incredibly rare skeleton at Paradise Falls that is believed to be a hoax. Disgraced, Muntz declares that the world will never see him again…unless he catches a living specimen. Carl sees all of this play out on the big screen, via newsreel.
On the way home from the theater, Carl hears noise coming from an abandoned house and decides to check it out. Inside, he meets Ellie (Elie Doctor), who, as fate would have it, becomes his wife. Then, in what might be the best ten minutes of animation this decade, Carl and Ellie grow old together and face the various realities of life. The segment plays out without dialog, instead choosing to use very strong, very human images to show the various heartbreaks and triumphs, large and small, that we all face.
But this is a movie about a man who flies his house.
And he does that, with the aid/hindrance of a young Wilderness Scout named Russell (Jordan Nagai), who is seeking out his last merit badge: Assisting the elderly. They make it to Paradise Falls, meet a talking dog, and have an adventure well beyond any you’d imagine the unlikely tag team of an old man and a young boy possible of having.
While I don’t want to spoil what happens after the house lands in South America, it involves Big Subjects for a kids movie. Those big subjects include loss, as Carl talks to an absent Ellie and literally drags their dream house behind him as he and Joseph trek to the falls, loneliness, which both Carl and Joseph experience, and being let down by your heroes. There is lighter fare, and plenty of it —the talking dog allows for some fun hypothesizing about dog psychology—but none of it is played for a cheap punchline.
Lurking somewhere out in Paradise Falls is Muntz, unseen since his last newsreel. After 70-something years in a jungle with only dogs and the rare poacher to keep him company, one wonders if there wasn’t something slightly maniacal just beneath the surface of his superheroic adventures, a need to be praised. I imagine the reaction he’d get upon his return to society would crush him. Maybe he’d get a stub on Wikipedia and a listing on the page for centenarians—a societal shrug of the shoulders, a minimization of his accomplishments. How many old newsreels do we have lying around, anyway?
If I had to guess at how old Carl is, I’d put him in his mid-70s, which may be generous considering the tennis ball muffled cane he walks with. That last sentence might be a bit ageist, and that may be what the movie is driving at by giving us a plot with an old protagonist, an older antagonist, and sidekicks who aren’t supergeniuses who spring to the rescue. For every grandfather who’s ever said “Do I have a story for you,” only to be ignored in favor of the Playstation, there are probably four or five really riveting stories about parachuting into some godawful machine gun nest in the thick of war. Below that, there might be more stories—first jobs, first kisses, hilariously drunken episodes—that go untold until they simply fade away. Last year, Gran Torino featured a smaller story about youth/elder bonding and picked up considerable Oscar buzz, if only because Clint Eastwood, an old man, kicked a whole lot of ass. Given its audience, this movie is more accessible, and maybe thus more important—who better to send this message to than kids?
The animation, as we’ve come to expect from most Pixar films, is excellent. Cartoonish though it may be, the animators are lavish with detail, from the curios on Carl’s mantle to the buttons on Russell’s sash, all the way to the spray at the bottom of Paradise Falls. No shortcuts are taken. I saw this movie in 2D, but the visuals still popped from the screen. I wonder how the colors compare once you throw on the glasses. I wonder if Carl’s huge nose constantly juts from the screen.
Pete Doctor, the director of Up, has been an integral part of Pixar’s success. Having been around since Pixar’s short animation days in 1988, he has been on the writing team of Toy Story, Toy Story 2, and Wall-E, which he left to devote more time to this film. He was also the director of Monsters Inc., which, on the very surface level of things, seemed like such a simple project—a movie about the monsters in our closet. Maybe those pitch meetings start with a long discussion on what clichés they haven’t brought to the big screen.
Since The Incredibles, I have been hoping for more mature mainstream animation, movies that don’t treat children like insipid, sugar-addled idiots. After nose-diving with Cars, Pixar’s last three films have been tremendous, if overwhelmed by the presence of Dreamworks, who seem to release three fast paced, poorly written, celebrity voiced catchphrase-a-thons to Pixar’s one gem a year. While I don’t see the trend changing (Dreamworks’ upcoming slate is depressing), Pixar’s ability to take a seemingly harebrained plot and turn in a winner is heartening. If Toy Story 3, The Bear and the Bow, and newt are as good as this, I’ll forgive them Cars 2.
Up. Directed by Pete Doctor. With Ed Asner (Carl), Christopher Plummer (Charles Muntz), and Jordan Nagai (Russell). Released May 29, 2009, by Walt Disney Pictures.