Three things to note before I begin my review: (1) Most importantly, I will be discussing the film in full, including spoilers and ruining surprises in the film, so continue reading at your own risk. Or come back and read it after you've seen the movie. (2) Many critics in the blogosphere are claiming that Pixar's Up is the funniest film the company has made to date, but I don't recall crying in Monster's Inc. or Toy Story (though, at times, they did pull at my heart strings). There are indeed humorous parts in the film, but they are not counterbalanced evenly by the somber parts. For the most part, Up is a meditation on grieving and the impermanence of life. But the real, more Up-lifting message of the movie, without any trace of cliché, is that the journey far surpasses the destination. (3) I cried five times during the movie -- FIVE -- and I loved every minute of it. Pixar created a near-perfect film. I would only put WALL-E and Monster's Inc. above it.
Synopsis: Up follows the adventures of grumpy ol' Carl Fredricksen, modeled after Walter Matthau and Spencer Tracy, and stow-away Wilderness Explorer Russell as they head to the (unfortunately) fictional Paradise Falls to fulfill Fredricksen's long-forgotten dream of traveling. Using thousands of helium-inflated balloons, Mr. Fredricksen's house is lifted high into the skies as the primary vehicle for their adventure. Russell and Mr. Fredricksen's already onerous journey is interrupted by Kevin (a female bird, named by Russell), Dug (a dog with a collar enabling his thoughts to be heard -- "Squirrel!"), and Charles Muntz, an explorer and Mr. Fredricksen's childhood hero. After returning from an exploration with the bones of an unknown bird, Muntz was declared a fraud and he disappeared, vowing not to return until he had captured the live bird and redeemed his reputation. Mr. Fredricksen has to choose between saving the meddlesome Russell and his pet Kevin, reaching Paradise Falls before the helium deflates, or helping his childhood hero capture the bird.
The power of silence: For anyone who's been paying attention, Pixar has an unparalleled brilliance in the art of silence. All of their film's preceding shorts are entirely silent -- "Geri's Game" is still my favorite -- and WALL-E took this devotion to storytelling in a lengthier direction. Up also contains an element of silence, and although it's only five minutes long, it is by far the most affecting.
First of all, we are introduced to Carl Fredricksen as a child. The film opens with him watching new reel footage of Charles Muntz's career. Dressed in an aviator hat and goggles and holding a blue balloon, he comes across an abandoned home -- not unlike the old Granville house in It's a Wonderful Life, another home of great symbolic meaning -- where he meets a young and very talkative girl named Ellie. Young Carl is stunned not only by her vivacity but by her shared adoration for Charles Muntz. Not once do we hear Carl talk, which is important because it is the older, grieving Carl with whom the audience is supposed to identify and not the younger, dream-filled child. One night, a blue balloon enters Carl's bedroom window, followed by Ellie and an incomplete scrapbook, waiting to be detailed with great adventures. She makes Carl promise to take her to Paradise Falls -- to cross his heart -- a promise that we soon learn he failed to keep.
What follows is a five minute silent montage of Ellie and Carl's marriage and life together, from painting a mailbox with their handprints to learning that they are unable to have children. They have moved into the old Granville house, as I shall refer to it, and we see them washing windows from opposite sides (her smile becomes a reflection of his), Carl working as a balloon salesman and Ellie as a bird handler, and putting extra coins into a Paradise Falls jar. Other financial obligations force them to repeatedly break the jar, and the dream of visiting Paradise Falls become a faint memory as Ellie grows weaker and dies of old age. After her death, cleaning the windows becomes a reminder of loneliness as Ellie's smile is not there to greet him, and the mailbox with their interlocking handprints becomes a physical reminder of their time together. Carl spends his days in a chair next to Ellie's chair.
Within the first twenty minutes of the movie, I was crying. Not just one tear, but many. And it was the power in the montage's storytelling that kept me emotionally tied to the misunderstood Mr. Fredricksen throughout the movie. He was merely a man who missed his wife, and he refused to change any material thing in her absence. It was only the threat of being moved to a retirement home and the recollection of a cross-your-heart promise that prompted him to do the impossible -- travel to Paradise Falls with the house that he and Ellie made into a home.
The house: Essentially, Up is both a coming of age tale (for Russell) and an unfinished love story (for Carl, who is still dealing with the loss of his wife). Russell, a child of divorce, is the perfect company for Carl as both of them are dealing with the weight of loss -- represented by the house, which both tie to their waists as a means of keeping it from floating away. The house represents family, something that Russell and Carl both feel is lacking in their lives, and the house is a constant physical manifestation of that loss. Only after carrying the burden of the house and becoming friends in the process are either of them able to regain purpose.
The house also, of course, represents Ellie. As her picture hangs on the wall in the living room, Carl often talks to it -- the picture specifically and the house generally -- and it looks to both Russell and the audience as though Carl perceives the house to be his wife. And it is. Every inch of that house contains a reminder of Ellie -- a bird she once painted, her scrapbook of memories, her chair, her picture on the wall, etc. When Carl initially takes flight, he steers his house in the living room where young Ellie pretended to take the reigns of a flying blimp. And the implausibility of a flying house -- by balloons, no less -- is ignored because of what the house represents. The film's use of balloons clearly orchestrates a life-long connection between Ellie and trying to reach for your dreams, but it's also a visual personification of Ellie floating towards the heavens and Carl trying to keep her close to the ground. Carl and Russell eventually reach Paradise Falls, but they are on the wrong side of the canyon and have limited time to take the house to its proper location before the helium in the balloons runs out. The helium, then, becomes a metaphor for time. Just like sand in an hourglass, time is escaping and Carl is constantly reminded of that burden.
This leads me to another point in the movie in which I began to cry: Exasperated and lacking time himself, Muntz lights Carl's house on fire to deter Carl from following him. It wasn't just a house on fire; it was Ellie. Luckily for us, the house does not burn down and Carl is able to place the home in its rightful place. Russell, however, has been kidnapped by Muntz and are floating back to the States with the exotic bird, Kevin, with them. Carl sits down in his chair -- next to Ellie's chair, in the very spot he crossed-his-heart he would take her -- and he can't be at peace because he knows that Russell, who has becomes Carl's new family, needs him. In order to make his house fly again, Carl unloads his house (and thus his baggage, his past), leaving all material items in a heap outside. All save two items, his and Ellie's chairs, which are set upright beside the heap of furniture. Insert waterworks again.
The importance of family: Before Carl discovers that Russell's been kidnapped, he leafs through Ellie's childhood scrapbook. He finds momentos of her married life with Carl, as well as a final note thanking him for their own adventure (life) and then encouraging him to go have his own. I somehow found a way to hold back the tears at this moment, but then Carl goes to the door looking for Russ and finds Dug, who says, "I was hiding under the porch because I love you." And then I began crying. Dug was once an additional burden for Fredricksen, but now he has been accepted as a loving companion who chooses to go on an adventure with Fredricksen even when he wasn't wanted. The familial presence of Dug is only heightened by Kevin, who, as a bird, becomes an extension of Ellie. Ellie was a bird handler and created a wooden bird, one of the many items Carl tries to salvage throughout the narrative, and so it only seems appropriate that he extends his love of Ellie onto Kevin, who becomes a temporary replacement for his wife. At the end of the adventure, Carl has to say goodbye to Kevin and release her back with her family, just as he had to say goodbye to Ellie.
The importance of dreams: One of the many, many morals of this movie is that dreams, whether realized or not, are important and that sometimes we embark on journeys without even realizing it. John Lennon once said, "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans." At one particularly profound moment, we learn why Russell is so intent on receiving his "Help the Elderly" Wilderness Explorer badge. Since his parents' divorce, which is never stated and only alluded to, Russ never sees his father except when he's awarded a new badge. There is an empty spot on Russ's sash -- right over his heart -- where the badge will be placed. He explains to Fredricksen that afterwards, he and his dad would go to an ice cream shop and count the red and blue cars passing by. Fredricksen rolls his eyes in annoyance, but then Russ says, "I know this stuff may seem boring, but it's the boring stuff I remember." This is yet another moment when I began to cry because this, of course, mirrors the earlier montage of Fredricksen remembering the quotidian of his life with Ellie.
At the end of the film, Russ gets his badge, but his father never shows up. Then we hear a familiar grumpy voice pushing through the crowd to pin the badge on Russ's sash. It's Mr. Fredricksen, but instead of the badge, he's pinned a grape soda pop top Ellie had pinned on his lapel when they were children. Once again, Up has illustrated a deep and profound love through the passing of a material object, and I... well, you know what I did. After the ceremony, Russell and Fredricksen go to the curb of the ice cream store and count the red and blue cars passing by. In a quick montage, the film closes with the future adventures of Russ and Fredricksen, two lost persons who found a new family and new dreams to have together.
Russell had the dream to get his Wilderness Explorers badge, which was really an excuse for him to spend time with his absent father, and Fredricksen had the dream to go to Paradise Falls with Ellie. Both of these dreams were important to the individuals who held them, but both were able to see the new adventures right before them.