2009 / OUT NOW / CERT. U PIXAR’S SOARAWAY SUCCESS
SOMETIMES A FILM’S OWN BRILLIANCE proves a stumbling block. The principal criticism of Up — virtually the sole criticism anyone can muster — is that its first few minutes provide such an emotional whammy that the rest is underwhelming by comparison. Like Saving Private Ryan, Austin Powers In Goldmember or Pixar’s own WALL-E, the sheer dazzle of the opening is almost impossible to surpass. But on repeat viewings the rest of the film only improves, and its study of love, loss and recovery grows more and more impressive.
Up sprang from frustration and social anxiety, director Pete Docter’s fantasy of being able to fly away from awkward or difficult situations — a wish we’ve all shared. The image at the film’s heart, a multi-coloured house floating away under a host of helium balloons, captures both that adult desire to escape responsibility and a more fundamental, child-like longing to believe in impossible things. The plot writhed through endless, outlandish permutations around the central idea, involving floating castles and a bird whose eggs were the fountain of youth, but the key was keeping the fantasy at just the right level.
So the film begins with a thoroughly grounded relationship, one that lasts (almost) a lifetime. A shy little boy, Carl (voiced here by Jeremy Leary, but Ed Asner in his older guise), who dreams of becoming an explorer, meets a wild girl called Ellie (Elizabeth Docter, the director’s daughter) with the same notion. Despite a disastrous first encounter, their relationship blossoms.
Their life together is summed up in ‘Married Life’, a moving dance through the couple’s triumphs and tragedies scored by the most beautiful piece of film music this century, courtesy of MVP Michael Giacchino. We’re still only 11 minutes in, but this sequence shapes everything to come. Through changing fashions and greying hair we see time pass — until Ellie passes too, and Carl is left isolated, his home under threat from heartless developers. They don’t know or care about the lifetime of memories it holds, and when he’s faced with eviction Carl ties thousands of balloons to his fireplace and just takes off instead. The moment when that house first soars is surreally beautiful, more Miyazaki than Mickey Mouse, and remains unsurpassed in modern American animation. The light passing through the rainbow of balloons fills a little girl’s room, and it’s hard not to grin like an idiot with pure wonder. But the fantasy works because we are, by now, convinced of Carl’s reality.
Ellie remains a potent presence for him, represented by a mailbox, an armchair, a book and particularly the house; it takes the entire movie for any living person to become as important to Carl as these tangible reminders. There’s a critique of modern life in there: only by letting go of material things does Carl reconnect to his humanity.
And there’s a melancholy undercurrent throughout: we can’t be sure that he ever intends to land again, and he shows no evidence of any plans after reaching the inhospitable Paradise Falls where he and Ellie always hoped to go. It’s only when he discovers boy scout Russell (Jordan Nagai) clinging desperately to his porch that Carl has any reason to return. And during his adventure on the Venezuelan tepui, Carl is virtually forced into new bonds with Russell, odd bird Kevin and talking dog Dug (codirector Bob Peterson), who give him a reason to let Ellie go.
Christopher Plummer’s Charles Muntz, the villain of the piece, also fits the theme. He’s a monomaniacal outcast with a parody of emotional connection (he loves his dogs) rather than the real thing, and therefore is what Carl could become without these innocents who prove his salvation. The film does futz with the physical capabilities of its 70-ish hero and 92 year-old baddie in the last act in order to stage an airship-based swordand-cane fight. But who could quibble about a little derring-do when there are literal aerial dogfights to enjoy? Even the happy ending, apparently free of legal consequences or awkward questions about Russell’s welfare, passes unremarked because we could never root against these characters.
It’s a bold move to make a grumpy, bereaved old man the protagonist of your brightly coloured animation, but Docter, Pixar’s gutsiest filmmaker, somehow knew it would work. Though Carl was physically modelled on Spencer Tracy and Walter Matthau, two similarly hot-tempered curmudgeons, his underlying sweetness came from Docter’s friendships with the last of the Nine Old Men, Disney’s legendary animators, and in particular from Joe Grant, who gave Carl his imagination. Carl is a square, almost literally given his design, but Ellie recognised in him what we come to see in the film: he has an unlimited capacity for daring, and a heart as big as the world.
1 Carl and Ellie in the early days, thrilled to install that laterso-resonant mailbox. 2 Pensioner Carl, heartbroken and lonely after Ellie’s death, takes flight.
Somewhat against the odds, Dug, Kevin and Russell reawaken Carl’s love for life.