I didn’t intend for this site to become a movie review blog, honest. However, just a few days after seeing James Cameron’s visually dazzling but emotionally empty opus, Avatar, I saw another film that was everything Avatar wasn’t: Disney/Pixar’s Up. I didn’t get a chance to see Up during its theatrical run, but I heard good things about it, so I put it on my Netflix queue. When I saw the film was available in streaming format, I jumped at the chance to see it. I wasn’t disappointed.
Like Avatar, Up uses state of the art visual effects and digital animation to take movie audiences to a world they’ve never seen before. Unlike Avatar, however, Up takes viewers along for the ride with characters they can actually care about on a journey that’s fun and unpredictable, and after which, both characters and audience have actually learned something about themselves. For all their mind-blowing technical skill with animation, the Pixar gang appears to have learned a lesson that James Cameron seems to have missed: the real essentials of any movie are character and plot, just like they’ve always been. Without these, all the razzmatazz in the world won’t make a good film. The Pixar crew nearly always manages to create good stories, and they never tell the same story twice. The story of Up is no exception.
As kids in the 1930s, shy hesitant Carl (Jeremy Leary) and brash, fearless Ellie (Elie Docter) are captivated by the newsreel exploits of adventurer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) who roams the globe in his custom-built dirigible making astonishing discoveries and bringing back rare artifacts. When Muntz is accused of fabricating the skeleton of a rare bird from Paradise Falls, a beautiful and isolated region of South America, he’s drummed out of the explorers’ society in disgrace. He sets off in his dirigible, vowing never to return unless he can bring back a live specimen of the bird.
In the meantime, Carl and Ellie grow up and marry, dreaming of their own shared life of adventure. Unfortunately, these dreams are never quite realized as they face life’s more mundane challenges, but their years together are long and mostly happy until Ellie’s passing leaves the elderly Carl (now voiced by Edward Asner) lonely and sad. A city of high rises and shopping malls grows up around his little house, and life seems to be passing him by. Rather than go to a retirement community involuntarily, however, Carl unleashes one last surprise. He’s equipped his house with a steering mechanism and thousands of balloons, making the house in effect a gondola for a hot air balloon rig. He too sets off for Paradise Falls, where he and Ellie promised each other they would live one day.
Little does Carl know, however, that he has an accidental stowaway on his voyage: Russell (Jordan Nagai), a hapless but goodhearted eight-year-old, a member of a Cub Scout-like organization called the Wilderness Explorers, in search of his Assisting the Elderly badge. In spite of the curmudgeonly Carl’s best efforts to get rid of him earlier, Russell happened to be on the porch when the house took off and has unwittingly set out on the adventure of a lifetime. For all his reliance on the Wilderness Explorer’s handbook and GPS (which he accidentally tosses out a window), Russell has precious little real knowledge of the outdoors and must rely on Carl for help.
When the unlikely pair reaches their destination they find not only a jungle paradise but also, strangely enough, a lovably goofy dog named Dug with a collar that enables him to talk and a giant multicolored bird that Russell immediately (but erroneously) dubs Kevin. Turns out Kevin is a she, not a he, with a brood of nestlings to protect, and that she and her nestlings are specimens of the very bird Muntz had sworn to find at any cost. Dug is one of a pack of talking dogs belonging to Muntz, who has sat for decades in his dirigible, waiting, brooding, and searching feverishly for a way into Kevin’s inaccessible hiding place. Over Carl’s protestations that it isn’t his concern, Carl and Russell become involved in a mad scramble to defeat Muntz, keep Kevin and her brood out of his clutches, and return to civilization.
In the process, Carl and Russell bond, grow, and change. Russell learns that there’s more to a life of adventure than reading about it in a handbook and earning merit badges. Carl, for his part learns that however much he treasures his memories of the past, he can’t live in it forever. At one point he decides he’s through with adventuring and will sit quietly in the house with his memories and mementos. As he’s leafing through the photo album Ellie called her “adventure book,” he comes upon the last photo of the couple together and a note from Ellie: “Thanks for all the adventures,” it reads, “now go have a new one.” Shortly thereafter, in order to get the house airborne again, Carl has to jettison the furniture, mementos, and odds and ends he’s cluttered the house with for years. Ultimately, he has to part with the house itself. He may love the past but in order to survive in the present, he can’t allow it to weigh him down.
While letting go of his past, however, Carl also learns that he doesn’t have to face an empty future. In Carl, Russell finds the father and grandfather figure he wants so desperately, and in Russell Carl finds the son and grandson he was never able to have with Ellie.
One of the many things that impressed me about this movie was its understated approach to storytelling. For all the outstanding visual work in this movie, and in contrast to Cameron’s ham-handed style in Avatar, the approach to narrative in Up is relatively and refreshingly subtle. Much is revealed in a brief, well-staged scene or a few well chosen lines of dialogue. The silent montage, accompanied only by background music, showing Carl and Ellie’s life together, perfectly encapsulates the mixture of joy and sorrow that any married couple might experience. The brief but sensitively handled scenes revealing that Carl and Ellie cannot have children of their own and revealing Ellie’s final illness will leave a genuine lump in the viewer’s throat.
Later in the movie, Russell reveals that he doesn’t have the relationship with his father he once did. “I call him, but Phyllis says I shouldn’t bug him so much,” Russell says.
“You call your mother by her first name?” Carl asks incredulously.
“Phyllis isn’t my Mom,” Russell says, embarrassed.
“Oh,” Carl says, equally embarrassed.
What is obvious has been left unsaid. Russell’s parents are divorced, his dad has remarried, and now he can’t make time for his own son. Up is a movie that doesn’t pander to viewers, respecting our minds while it tugs at our heartstrings. If there were more movies around like it,I might go to the movies more often; I might be up for more movies.