What is Up?
It is a love story. A tragedy. A soaring fantasy. A surreal animated comedy. A three-hankie weepie. A cliffhanging thriller. A cross-generational odd-couple buddy movie. A tale of sharply observed melancholy truths and whimsically unfettered nonsense.
Besides all this, Up even opens with a newsreel and a stand-alone cartoon short (“Partly Cloudy”) — like going to the “talkies” in the old days, when Carl Fredrickson was a shy, wide-eyed lad who idolized dashing celebrity explorer Charles Muntz and dreamed of adventure, but became tongue-tied in the overwhelming presence of the irrepressible, voluble Ellie, a kindred spirit of sorts.
Up opens with an eloquent, economical prologue that is among the most arresting tributes to lifelong love that I have ever seen in any film, let alone a cartoon. Joy, serenity, hope and heartbreak, dreams long treasured and long deferred — a lifetime of indelible memories effortlessly evoked in a few brief minutes.
Now a stumpy, crusty old geezer who lives by himself in a forlorn bungalow glaringly out of place in a neighborhood in the throes of urban upheaval, Carl (Ed Asner) is a widower, but Ellie remains very much a presence in the film. She is still the center of Carl’s world, and their love story is the only story he has.
No, Carl won’t hear of selling his house to the faceless suit who razes and erects worlds around him. He doesn’t want the help of the hopelessly earnest young Wilderness Explorer Russell (Jordan Nagai), doggedly fixated on doing him a good turn to earn his missing “Assisting the Elderly” merit badge.
Above all, Carl is determined that whatever his future holds, it won’t be the sanitized comfort of the Shady Oaks retirement home. What other animated film has contemplated the anxious stubbornness of the elderly to cling to whatever independence they can for as long as they can, to remain connected to familiar places and things? What other animated film even has a senior citizen for a protagonist? (Howl’s Moving Castle does not count. Sofi is really a child in a grandmother’s body.)
And then things start to unravel, and Carl’s future is no longer in his hands. You may have seen or known about similar cases from the outside; Up shows us the story from Carl’s inside perspective.
And so we come to the great conceit celebrated in the much-seen trailers. If by some twist you haven’t seen it, you won’t read about it here. It is a moment of singular magic, and the delight of discovery comes but once. Anyone happy enough to enjoy that discovery watching the film has my envy.
Suffice to say, Carl precipitously decides to throw caution to the wind and embarks on the long-dormant shared dream he and Ellie cherished: to follow in the footsteps of their childhood hero Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) and go to South America to see the spectacular Paradise Falls in the “Lost World” of Venezuelan mesa country. Yes, the journey started in that magical moment has a destination; Up is not the aimless, lofty film you might imagine from the trailer.
And yet nothing so far could prepare you for the lunacy that commences once the film reaches the vicinity of Carl’s destination.
Somehow, like Dorothy with her cyclone, like Muntz in those old newsreels, Carl has left the ordinary world behind and landed in a “Lost World” of pulp adventure. A world of lighter-than-air airships and biplane dogfights, of exotic refugees from a Dr. Seuss zoology, of trained guard dogs who cook and even (in a conceit echoing the film version of Michael Crichton’s “Lost World” tale Congo) communicate in an unexpected way.
As wonky as the proceedings get, director Pete Docter and screenwriter and co-director Bob Peterson (collaborators on Finding Nemo) never entirely lose touch with the ragged human emotions underlying the story. There’s an obvious metaphor in the film itself for the strange blend of realism and zaniness, partly tethered to solid ground, partly twisting in the capricious winds of whimsy.
At the same time, as powerful as the emotional underpinnings are, the characters experiencing those emotions don’t quite come entirely into their own. They’re somewhat archetypal, not entirely unlike the characters in Wall-E, rather than fully realized, specific individuals, like those of Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and Ratatouille.
In part, because of this, for all its emotional power, for all that Up gets right, the overall effect is poignant and charming rather than enthralling.
This film has rarefied standards, applicable only to the work of Pixar. The very fact that I wrote the first two-thirds of this review without mentioning the studio’s name or citing previous works is a testament to its sustained achievement. There was no need. Only one team in the world is doing work like this.
The film is rich with the symbolism of ordinary life. The central symbol is Carl’s house itself, the embodiment of his shared life with Ellie, in an important way a symbol of Ellie herself.
In a way, Up offers a sweeter and less uncanny counterpoint to Gil Kenan’s Monster House, a darker computer-animated tale of a crotchety, reclusive old widower inhabiting a house that’s as much a character as the humans, with as much of a mind of its own.
Ellie’s childhood “Adventure Book,” a scrapbook documenting her exploits and aspirations, with its blank pages saved for her hoped-for trip to South America, epitomizes the tension between unrealized dreams and what turns out to be the actual stuff of our lives.
I did not cry while watching Up, though certainly many will, but I was moved to tears afterward thinking about it. It has become commonplace to say that Pixar makes films as much or more for adults as for children, but this is too facile.
Up is a film about life that makes realities of adult and even geriatric experience universally accessible, even to the youngest viewers. Isn’t this among the noblest things a story can do?
Steven D. Greydanus is editor
and chief critic at DecentFilms.com.
CONTENT ADVISORY: Some scenes of menace and peril; an off-screen action death; sober depiction of mortality and grief. Could be intimidating for very sensitive youngsters.