Movies That Everyone Should See: “Up”

In 2008 Pixar Animation Studios released “WALL•E”, an animated movie that defied genre expectations. The film opens with a long chapter where the lead character is by himself, and throughout the movie, he and his romantic partner have limited verbal communication. It was a bold play, but done so well that audiences and critics responded overwhelmingly. “WALL•E” was an enormous success financially, scored 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, and won the Oscar for best animated film. It is now one of the highest rated animated films in IMDb’s top 250.

But the main thing was that it was so unique, it was a such an original effort… more than Pixar’s prior exceptional offerings, even.

So when “Up” was released the next year, the question on everybody’s mnd was, “Could Pixar do it again?”

The answer?

Yes. Yes they could.

Up begins with a romance.

A young boy and a young girl, both enamored of the adventures of explorer Charles Muntz, meet and form a “club” together. After a disastrous first meeting that leaves the boy in a cast, the two bond over dreams of adventure while he recuperates. A quick flash forward, and the two are married. The couple discuss having a child, but learn that they’re unable to. Moving forward with their lives, they decide instead to save for a journey to Paradise Falls – the spot they dreamed of adventuring to as children. Which doesn’t always go according to plan. Life has a way of creating other priorities, and their savings are often diverted to more mundane, domestic needs.

A held hand, watching clouds… “Up” shows us two people in love, living a life together. With a montage of her tightening his tie each morning, the years pass. Just as real years do. Day flows into day and year into year. Yet the two stay very much in love. A gaze in the mirror at each other, a waltz by candlelight. Their love stays strong their entire lives.

They never do make Paradise Falls, though. He buys them tickets, realizing their window of opportunity may be passing… but it’s too late. They discover she’s ill and soon thereafter, she passes on.

It’s a segment that runs eleven and a half minutes. It’s wordless, yet powerfully evocative. Tender. It may be one of the most touching segments in animated film history. The animators at Pixar encapsulated an entire life spent together, with all its sweetness and sorrow. It’s a wonderful sequence, but also a unique one. It’s not something you’d expect from an animated film – from what’s ostensibly a children’s move.

And yet Pixar let “Up” open with it, to great effect.

From that point forward, not only are you emotionally invested in the character, you’re invested in his journey. As he embarks on his mission to reach Paradise Falls, you know exactly what that means to him. It’s not simply some abject goal, some meaningless mission. It’s a promise and a wish. It’s about fulfilling a dream that he and his dearly beloved wife both shared. Instead of telling us that, Pixar patiently invests the time in showing it to us, so that we could feel it for ourselves.

It also establishes the thematic question that makes “Up” so unique in the realm of animated fare. What is life about, once the person you’ve lived for has passed? Without her, his daily existence is a monotonous one. A dreary exercise in dragging himself out of bed and downstairs in order to sit on his porch or in front of his tv.

Carl, left alone, stubbornly refuses to sell the house that he and his wife lived in, even though construction rages around him. Eventually, though he’s unable to hold the construction team off any longer. Faced with being put in a retirement home after an altercation with a construction worker, Carl decides instead to do something adventurous. A balloon salesman by trade, Carl attaches thousands of helium balloons to his house and lets them lift the house into the sky.

His dream? To float the house to Paradise Falls.

What he doesn’t realize is that he’s not alone. Russell, who was asking to assist him earlier in order to earn a merit badge, was trapped on his porch during lift-off. A hyper-talkative young boy is the furthest thing from what Carl wanted, but there’s nothing he can do. They’re 20,000 feet in the air. He’s stuck with him

Once they (quickly) arrive in South America, “Up” begins to shift towards an exciting action/adventure movie.

The house touches ground, tossing Carl and Russell overboard. They’re barely able to hang on to it by grabbing the garden hose. What they discover is that they’ve landed near Paradise Falls, but not on Paradise Falls. Thus, Carl needs to walk the house around to his destination before the balloons lose their helium and the house lands permanently.

During their journey around the crescent-shaped plateau, however, they become embroiled in his idol’s quest for redemption. Yes, Charles Muntz, whom he and his wife had idolized in their youth, is still alive and still pursuing the elusive bird that caused him to be scientifically discredited so many decades ago.

Muntz, who lives aboard his blimp, the “Spirit of Adventure”, has bred a small army of dogs in order to hunt the elusive giant do-do-like creature. He’s equipped them with tracking devices, communication systems, cameras, and perhaps most impressively, translators. Muntz’s dogs are able to speak.

As fate would have it, Russell’s innocence is able to bring them into contact with the bird that Muntz has spent decades hunting. He simply gives it some chocolate, and they become friends. None of this sits well with the cranky Carl, of course. Nor does the arrival of one of Muntz’s dogs… the kindhearted Dug, who doesn’t fit in well with his well-trained brethren, but fits right in with the ragtag band that Carl and Russell are developing.

Once the four of them have banded together, they’re forced to evade and often escape Muntz and his dogs. The single-minded Muntz will stop at nothing to capture his prize, even if that means endangering Carl, Russell, and Dug. Action and excitement ensue. The floating house is dragged along as Carl, Russell, Dug flee pursuit. Eventually the action takes to the air as house-blimp meets balloon-house in the battle for the bird.

Given the shift in tone and pacing that “Up” undergoes, a detractor might say that “Up” degenerates into something closer to standard fare after its midpoint. But that’s not the case at all. Not only is the action  portion of “Up” phenomenally well done, it also serves to strengthen the film thematically.

Carl insists on dragging his house to the falls, until the events surrounding him cause him to make choices about what’s important. The film’s action serves to create situations where Carl needs to unburden himself of carrying so many memories in order to live in the now. At one point he has to discard his possessions in order to lighten the house for flight, and eventually, he has to part ways with the house itself. But unlike Muntz, who is consumed by his obsessions and his past, Carl’s willingness to move on with his life rewards him handsomely.

He has found something to care about beyond his departed wife, their home, and the dream they once shared together.

“Up” won the Academy Award for Best Animated Film and Best Score. It was also nominated for Best Picture. It continued Pixar’s string of massively successful and critically adored films. In fact, along with its predecessor “Wall*E”, “Up” helped firmly establish the studio’s reputation for high quality animated works that weren’t pressed from the same mold as other animated movies.

“Up” bucks the boundaries of typical animated fare by presenting a lonesome, geriatric hero, on an atypical quest, who accepts the company of his motley crew begrudgingly at best. Yet the movie manages to be bright, colorful, exhilarating and optimistic. It’s an beautiful, meaningful movie, with an abundance of soul. For a “children’s” flim, it has amazing moments of tenderness and depth. It’s a story that illustrates the power of keeping an open heart through every phase of life. How willingness and a spirit of adventure can lead to a fulfilling experience, no matter how old you are.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”.

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74 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “Up”

  1. I used to work at a Doctor’s office at the time UP came out. I kid you not, one of the patients looked exactly like Carl. He had that square jaw, those thick glasses, and walker with those tennis balls attached at the bottom. This patient was pretty mean, but I couldn’t stay mad at him. All i could see is Carl and a million of balloons behind him. LOL

    OH, I don’t care what anyone says, but Russell is Korean. Someone once told me that he had Down Syndrome. Come on! LOL

    • I’m guessing American, since he lived within walking distance of Carl, and Carl was from the US.

      That would have been cool if like your Doctors office gave balloons to patients. Then you could have tricked him into a picture. :D

  2. I didn’t like the weird mix of live action and animation that happened in WALL E, but I love everything about Up. Its definitely the best movie I’ve seen in 3D at the theater, and it’s also my favorite Pixar film.

    • Favorite Pixar film is so tough. I’m not sure – for me, now – that this one trumps Toy Story. But it definitely trumps Wall*E. I totally prefer this one to that. Although I didnt have any live action/animation issues with it… I just think I find the human leads and human story more relatable. Thus, “Up” wins!

  3. Brilliant movie, from the touching moment at the beginning, to the not-quite-as-touching-but-still-touching moment where he has to let go of his possessions to save his new friend.

  4. That opening sequence had a bit of “sand” in it. A brilliantly executed montage for all the reasons you mentioned. Vary rarely does any film draw me in so completely, especially an animated one.
    The caricatures often used in designing animated characters can be all-to-often distracting, and as such detracting. This one on of the first times in memory that for me, this was not the case. The character development was so strong that their animated designs were, while not ignored, nicely relegated to deeper recesses of my observation. Such is a testimony to the strength of the film as a whole.
    All told, I find this to be a very solid addition to this series.

  5. Great review Dan. This is another great Pixar film. I remember when it came out on DVD and a bunch of us from my work had seen it. We ended up going out to L.A. for a work trip. The entire time we were out there, every time we saw a hot girl walk by we went SQUIRREL! No one caught on but it made us laugh. I’ve seen this movie a couple of times and the short, Dug’s Mission. The voice of Alpha makes me laugh every time he talks. All I can think of is the days as kids sucking helium.

    I’ve been slowly replacing my DVD Pixar collection with Blu-Ray versions. I don’t care what age you are, Pixar movies have it all.

    • LOL @ the SQUIRREL! story. Funny stuff, made me laugh. :D

      Upgrading these to Blu is a good call. They’re so sharp and detailed, its the type of movie that the added pixels can really make a striking difference.

      This was an awesome flick. Really glad you agree on this one.

      • I still use the squirrel reference for my ADD, when I get sidetracked while talking to people. It’s funny to see their confused faces.

        I recently bought a 58″ refurbished Samsung Plasma 3D Smart TV. Watching Blu-Ray on these is like watching it live, the detail is incredible. Game of Thrones looks so real, Megamind looked awesome. I don’t have any of the Pizar Blu-Ray yet but Disney’s The Wild looked great too.

    • I’ve got to mention a quick SQUIRREL story that this reminded me of. I work at Chuck E. Cheese and have to listen to the corny jokes on the show repeated every hour during my shift. We got a new show probably a year after Up came out and it had one of the characters shouting SQUIRREL and it made me laugh out loud the first time I heard it in the middle of the arcade, luckily there weren’t any guests around me at the time.

      • Yeah, right. It’s expensive!

        What really gets me is by the time we’re all finished updating our DVD collections, Blu Rays will be outdated and the next biggest best thing will come along. LOL

  6. Up is an epiphany in story telling and film making. It almost seemed to me like the guys over at Pixar looked at the silent first 20 minutes of Wall-E and realizing it was a masterpiece … wondered if they could do it again. Well not only yes, but an even more heartfelt passage.

    Up and Wall-E rank one two all time for me. Its hard to ever imagine better, but when talking Pixar you can never say never.

    • Yeah, those two Pixar flicks are always going to be cojoined to an extent due to the structural similarities in the opening sequence and the fact that they were released back to back.

      They just took Pixar to another #&$%ing level. I mean, no matter how great you thought they were before, after Wall-E and Up, you had to step back and say, good god. These guys are something else entirely. :D

  7. Excelent Pixar film. They usually deliver (except for Cars 2). That entire 11 minute opening is just genius. This is another gem in my video collection. Great review and..SQUIRREL. Sorry, got distracted.

  8. Very good review! It is a an amzing film and has me in tears every time I watch the first 11 minutes, and the rest of the film just has me in stitches. One of my favourite films and is most certainly something everyone should watch

    • Thank you Patto!

      I agree, it’s a really moving film. The first part is sad, but there are moments further along the way that can “get to me” too, like when he finally gets the house to Paradise Falls.

      Thanks for commenting! :D

  9. “Once the balloon house landed–I thought it kind of fell off from phenomenal animated classic to average animated chase/fight bad guy territory” DF 3/6/12. Have a change of heart? You were the only one who tossed “Up” out there that day. A movie all Hollywood was talking up! There was consideration for dropping best animated film for just plain best film. But it was slighted that day on FMR. Glad to see it’s status regained!

    • Wow, that’s freaky stuff right there buddy.

      I guess I’m hard put to explain the change in tone aside from the fact that I never fully expressed myself in that comment on a comment. You’re taking 1 sentence and comparing it to a 1,200 word write up.

      I always did feel it fell off until this rewatch, when I picked up on how just how symbolic Carl towing the house around with him was. I suppose you could call it a change of heart. That said, it’s still the opening / tone setting backstory that makes this movie so remarkable. If they began this movie with Carl refusing to sell his house, say… it wouldnt be the same movie.

      I’ll uh… try to be more consistent.

      • No need. You were the only person to mention “Up” last month as a favorite animated. Everyone missed it, you were the only one to recognize it’s greatness. The “key” changecould be read both ways. No problem.

    • There’s a shift in tone for sure, into more typical action/adventure stuff… but on my recent reviewing, it grew quite a bit in my estimation. Its really well done and it DOES strengthen the themes. So…

      That said, there’s no doubt the opening segment is what sets “Up” into the classics category.

    • Thanks. Disney fan, eh?

      It’s hard not to! They do such a good job touching the heart with this one, its really super hard not to respond.

      Glad you enjoyed the post, thanks for stopping by! :D

  10. Another great pick, Dan, yes indeed this is one everyone should check out. That ‘matrimony’ scene in the beginning alone is worth the price of admission!

    • Yeah it is. If it had been like a short attached to another movie, people would be raving about it. Definitely.

      Thanks Ruth, appreciate the vote of confidence on this one here! :D

    • LOL…. “Squirrel” is getting more play in this thread than any other character. :D

      Glad you like this one too, Sarah. I’m a big Pixar fan as well. Eventually I’ll write up most of them in this series at some point… but uh, not Cars 2. ;)

  11. One of my favorite movies! The opening scene even makes my hubby tear up and that is no easy feat. Hell, you even made me teary with your description of the opening. This is definitely one everyone should see! Thanks, Dan!

  12. What no love for Cars @!?

    I haven’t bothered to watch it. Only thing I enjoyed about the first one was Carlin as the hippy dippy VW.

    UP easily trumps WALL-E. That montage in UP alone puts so many films to shame, animated or not.

    I do wonder how many UP related Darwin Award attempts there have been though.

    • LOL. They could probably fill a book on them. I know National Geographic replicated the house/balloon thing for a special and they got it off the ground at least. Didnt read too much about it.

      Carlin was great as the VW van. RIP. :(

  13. I’m a big fan of Pixar. They have such great story lines and build ups. My nephew will watch this movie 3 times a day and the funny thing is, I never get tired of watching it either.

    • See? Thats awesome. It’s such a sophisticated story emotionally, and it features an elederly hero. Yet a 3 yr old still loves it. Pixar! They’re geniuses, I’m tellin’ ya! :D

  14. Yes, yes, and yes. The building of Ellie and Carl’s relationship was so beautifully told. I broke when thing began to crumble. It was heartbreaking to watch! The film took on some surprisingly adult themes in the beginning too. Glad they did – they provided the emotional punch and touch of realism a lot of the adults needed when seeing it.

    There isn’t a part of this film I don’t love. Top to toe, it’s just a joy to watch.

    • “Emotional Punch” is right. They step into that thing too… push off the pack foot, turn the hip into it… :D It packs a whallop!

      It is a joy to watched Jaina. I know I enJOYed it watching it this weekend. LOL :D See what I did? Clever, right? Heh. EnJOYed it.

    • I remember getting home after seeing ‘Up’ in theaters. My wife asked my son and I how the movie was, as usual he loved it. I just smile and say it was good. My son vanishes to his room, and she says “it was just good”? I tell her “that may have been the saddest animated movie I’ve ever seen. It was so good, I don’t think I can do it justice by trying to explain it to you.”

      • LOL. Having recently tried to “Explain it” to people (see above) I can relate.

        It is sad – at several points. But it’s also joyful. There’s renewal and joy… It’s just a very very emotional movie. Which is surprising for a “Cartoon”.

      • It is insanely sad. The whole film is one guy trying to get over his regret over what he couldn’t do for his wife while she was with him. On the way he finds people who teach him how she would have liked for him to live his life and it all just brings tears to my eyes.

  15. Up and Ratatouille have long been in a wrestling match in my brain and my heart over the title of “Andrew’s favorite Pixar film”. It goes back and forth; right now it’s Ratatouille because I have an affinity for movies that are about creating (whether they’re movies about movies or just general movies about the human need to express and create).

    But Up is magical. Up captures so many different senses and emotions that as varied and rich as Ratatouille is, Up just feels like the more robust and complete film. Maybe my profuse admiration for it stems from that ten minute opening; in that minute time frame Pixar tells a love story that’s far superior to most that are told within an hour and a half. Just outstanding, and I will also cop to how that sequence choked me up the first time in theaters.

    Also, Ed Asner is amazing here.

    • Asner totally is awesome here, what a great role to land for an older actor, no?

      I’m gonna have to rewatch Ratatouille, I wasn’t knocked out by it when I first saw it… not that I’m saying it wasnt good, by any means.

      Up, meanwhile, IS magical, yeah. It strikes a great balance beteween emotion and excitement. But you’re right, there’s no doubt… that opening is what sets it apart for sure. I mean, how many movies are willing to do that, animated or not?

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