In 2009, Pixar did something remarkable and released a film that would have almost no merchandising and licensing potential, but would cause numerous adults throughout the country to bawl during the first ten minutes of their tenth feature film, Up.
Up is Pixar’s masterpiece, providing a touching, thrilling and moving story and one of the most heartbreaking sequences ever seen in an animated film. In addition, the film was the first Pixar movie to be released in 3D and since I saw it in theaters for a 3D showing, I can say that they managed to use what all too often seems like a fad and turn it into a way to deepen the images of the film, such as the house floating through the clouds.
A main focus of the film is adventure and how that changes as our life goes on. When the film starts, Carl Fredricksen (Jeremy Leary as the young Carl, Edward Asner as Carl for the rest of the film) is a wide-eyed boy who admires the explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), who recently accused of fabricating the skeleton of a bird the explorer found in the far away South American locale of Paradise Falls. While out playing, Carl meets Ellie (Elie Docter), an energetic tomboy who also admires Muntz. The two become friends, then marry and we see their lives play out with all things that must happen in live as they try to someday go to Paradise Falls before we find out why Carl is alone. (I won’t spoil what happens because that is part of the reason as to why the first ten minutes is heartbreaking to watch.)
Now Carl lives in the house he met Ellie in, which they both fixed up and painted. Surrounding him is construction and developments of modern businesses, encroaching on his house where he lives quietly, never seeming to leave the property. The developer is willing to buy the property from Carl, but he insists that the house can be torn down only after his death. Meanwhile, an eager Wilderness Scout named Russel (Jordan Nagai) shows up at Carl’s door, wanting to help him in order to earn his Assisting the Elderly merit badge. Carl sends the boy to go find a creature under the house. Shortly afterwards, the mailbox outside of the house is damaged and in a fury over the damaged mailbox and the construction worker’s carelessness, Carl injures the man. After this outburst, he is evicted from the home and told to live in a retirement home. While packing he discovers Ellie’s “Adventure Book” and comes up with a plan to get the house to Paradise Falls as well as keep him out of a dreaded retirement community. He inflates thousands of brightly colored helium balloons and tethers them to the house, causing the house to lift up off the ground and sail through the sky. While floating, Carl hears a knock and finds that Russel is a stowaway who is allowed to join him on the trip. After a tumultuous trip where the house travels through lighting, the find Paradise Falls, as well as talking dogs—mainly Dug (Bob Peterson, the films co-writer)—exotic birds (Pete Doctor, the film’s director and other co-writer), and Muntz himself.
It would be hard to argue that Up isn’t at least one of the greatest films Pixar has ever made. With the small characters, they all have many sides to themselves. When we first see Carl after the short, emotionally devastating prologue, he has become hardened and bitter by the absence of Ellie, a personification of the grumpy old man. But in the first twenty-five minutes of the film, there’s plenty the audience sees of Carl to see that he isn’t just an acerbic elderly individual. Once there was a spirit of adventure that thrived in the his soul, causing him to one day finally buy tickets to South America for him and Ellie, and that thirst for adventure is what causes him to use the balloons to fly. Russel, although a hyper individual, is persistent, brave and loyal to the point that he is willing to go find the animals the two meet in Paradise Falls without Carl’s aid. Similarly, the same could be said about Muntz, who seems admirable, but is ultimately a very dark character in the film. None of the main characters are one-dimensional and Dug does not come across as an annoying sidekick that would entice children to see a movie where the protagonist is a cantankerous old man.
But there is more to this film that makes it wonderful than just the characters. There is of course the magnificent animation that transports us to exotic South America, and the array of vivid colors that are reflected on the walls of a girl’s bedroom as the house floats by after take off. The animation is something that by 2009 everyone had come to expect of Pixar, although it is still worth recognizing. What really makes Up soar—no pun intended—is Michael Giacchino’s score for this film that has a recurring waltz motif that is first heard during the prologue. For the four minute montage showing Carl and Ellie’s life together, his score is the essentially the only sound heard during the sequence, but provides more emotion than any dialogue possibly could. The more remarkable aspect about the score is how the theme comes up in many different forms and never feels over used because of the orchestrations finding the right balance of instruments so in some more moving sequences a piano is all that is used, while a fuller orchestra is used in others. And with a film that the image primarily associated with it is of a structure flying through the air, the light score works perfectly for the film.
Up might be one of Pixar’s most Fantasy-like films because of the premise involving a man who ties balloons to his house and causes the structure to fly him to South America. That does not matter with the beauty and emotion presented in the film. In fact, Carl tying balloons to his house is what can help fuel dreams of adventures just like Muntz did for the young Carl and Ellie. What Up shows us is even when we’re alone and want to stay that way, there is adventure out there and we are never too old for it.