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?”
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”.