Carl Fredricksen has lived a long life. After the death of his wife and lifelong friend, he is left with nothing but his memories and the house they grew old in. But it seems like he’ll lose that too when construction workers threaten to tear it down and put him in a retirement home. In a last act of desperation, Carl ties thousands of balloons to his house, turning it into a makeshift aircraft. It’s then that he sets off for South America to fulfill his and his wife’s childhood dream of exploring and having adventures, along with the reluctant company of Russell, a stowaway boy scout. When they get to Paradise Falls where Carl plans to live out his days, he and Russell end up having their own adventure involving a talking dog, an exotic bird, and Carl’s old idol.
One thing that I’ve learned after watching ten Pixar movies is that they don’t beat around the bush. What made them the animation juggernaut they are today was not just their revolutionary use of CG animation, but their refusal to walk the beaten path of family film clichés, taking on issues that other family movies wouldn’t touch with a twenty-foot pole like mortality and obsolescence. Not only do they tackle these issues head on like Leroy Jenkins charging into a dungeon, but they make them the entire foundation of their movies. Up is no exception, but instead of the main character being a middle-aged toy, monster or superhero, it’s a 78-year-old man who was dealt a bad hand after going through a series of royal flushes, and faces the challenges that someone of his age inevitably encounters: struggling to keep up with the breakneck pace of modernity, coming to terms with the end of their life, and looking back at the would’ve-could’ve-should’ves of the past.
This is summed up perfectly in the first ten minutes which is, and I am not exaggerating here, one of the most emotionally potent and brilliantly executed scenes I have ever seen in any movie ever, animated or otherwise. We see Carl’s life from the moment he met the girl who would become his wife, all the joy they experience, the hardships they go through, the unconditional love they have for each other, the heartache he goes through after her passing, all within the span of less than five minutes and with no dialogue. I’m dead serious. This scene alone sends you spinning headfirst through half of the spectrum of human emotions right before sucker punching you in the heart. The only excuse I can think of for someone not being emotionally destroyed by the end of this scene is either they watched it so many times that they’ve become numb to it (which I find very unlikely), or that they have no soul. But it serves a purpose other than just making you joyfully sad. It shows us why Carl has become so bitter, why he’s so hesitant to open up to anyone else (because as far as we know, he’s only had one real friend his whole life) and it shows us why he has such a personal connection to his house.
But just like most of Pixar’s best work, they balance emotional depth with amazing action and hilarious comedy. While Up is at its core a meditation on old age, much like the similarly themed film The Bucket List, there’s a real sense of adventure here. We get to see Pixar’s trademark creativity at full swing, harkening to films like Indiana Jones, Apocalypse Now and Aguirre: Wrath of God, but also calls back to elements of classic adventure novels by the likes of Jules Verne, Rudyard Kipling and Edgar Rice Borroughs. It effortlessly combines endearing characters with vast creativity and excitable situations, something a lot of the big summer action films that year failed to pull off. (cough*Transformers 2*cough)
And I’m not just talking about Carl and Russell who serve as this film’s Indy and Short Stop (except Russell isn’t nearly as annoying as Short Stop). About half way through we’re introduced to Kevin, an eight foot tall exotic bird with its own personality, and Doug, a dog with a collar that allows it to speak, whose voice, dialect and mindset is pretty close to how most people think their dogs would act if they could talk. (There are several other dogs with the same collar, and one of them has the most uproariously funny moment in the entire movie.) We’re also introduced to Charles Muntz, a disgraced, half mad explorer who serves as a dark parallel to Carl’s adventurous spirit.
Throughout the Pixar canon, there has been an overlying theme of fatherhood. While most of the main characters aren’t really biological fathers per se, most of their main characters at this point were all middle-aged men who had to face the challenges with becoming father figures. In Toy Story, we see two widely different icons fighting for the affection of a young boy. In Monsters Inc., we see two bachelors have their easygoing lifestyle flipped upside down when they have to care for a lost child. Finding Nemo, self-explanatory. In Carl’s case, he is reluctantly forced to care for Russell, an annoying but well-meaning kid. The generation gap between them does lead to some real conflict but it’s also what brings them together. And although it didn’t make me teary eyed like the beginning did, I must admit the ending was pretty heartwarming to say the least.
All in all, Up is among Pixar’s finest. The characters are incredibly endearing and personal, the animation is stunning as usual, the action was great, the comedy was great, the drama was great, it just does everything right. What the trailer promised as a film simply about an old man in a flying house lifted by a thousand balloons turned out to be one of the funnest, most emotionally involving films of th decade, which could only be outclassed by the film that followed it.
I give Up 10/10
10 down, 3 to go.