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.

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