16 February 2011


Up is such a hard film to parse for me. I'm reasonably certain it's the most thematically and dramatically complex story Pixar has done yet. It's also the most symbolically rich film I think they've done, and as such I suspect it's the most unpackable Pixar film to date. More than any of the others -- even ones I personally have more fondness for (not that I'm short in the fondness department when it comes to this one) -- Up is a slippery riddle that seems to run off in all directions at once and still manages to feel like a single cohesive story.

Last time I watched this I dismissed it somewhat glibly as one of those stories (like Wall-E, like Juno) that starts in one direction and seems to veer off in another, broader direction once the story gets going, and I don't think that's a wrong assessment. It's just that Up seems like it does that a little differently, a little more aware. On first glance, it seems like the story is Carl's need to fulfill his dead wife's wish, to keep a crossed-heart promise to the young girl he fell so deeply in love with. In fact Carl achieves that, actually, about an hour in, and what's left is the discovery that his wife's final wish was not for him to live in their past but to "have new adventures," to never give up the ghost, and to live in his own present and future. Up isn't about a man trying to float a house down to a South American jungle to make real the silly dreams of his youth; it's about a man coping with loss and finding a way to honor that loss without losing himself as well.

To that end we also have other characters dealing with loss: Russell has lost his father (presumably to divorce); Charles Muntz has lost the respect of the nation, and maybe you could argue he's lost his soul to the bitterness of spending a lifetime hunting for Kevin, the giant bird -- who in turn has lost her family and the way home. There's even Dug, who's never really had a loving master as far as we know in the story. Dug's maybe an outlier, in that he wants the same kinds of things our heroes want (family, father/son relationship and love, dignity and self-respect) but we don't get the sense that these are things he has ever had. Still, for the most part Up feels like a bunch of lost and wounded souls with colliding trajectories. Or that's my passing theory on the subject.

The truth is, this new perspective still figures oddly into the final act, which pits Fredricksen against Muntz. I guess the key to all this is Kevin, the macguffin-in-bird-form, who is trying to get back to her home. Muntz wants to use her to absolve the shame of his career and prove that he was not a fraud and a fake (which, it should be pointed out, he was not, making his villainy almost problematically tragic), and Carl wants to rescue Kevin and deliver her to her babies -- which is actually not Carl's quest at all, but Russell's -- and even that is Russell's secondary quest since we begin the story with Russell's mission definitively set as "assisting the elderly" and helping Carl on Carl's journey -- and even that is just a means to an end, because what Russell is really after is reunion with his lost father (which is similar to how Carl's quest to relocate his house is actually a means to reconnecting with the ghost of his wife).

You can see how it's a puzzle to decode here. Halfway through the story -- when Carl looks through Ellie's Adventure Book and realizes she's lived her full life and only wants her husband to do the same -- Carl completely changes his goals. At this point in the narrative, Russell has already made up his mind, and abandons his main quest (assist Carl, win back his father) and pursues this secondary quest as well. This actually prompts a focus in Carl's objective from saving Kevin to saving Russell. I suppose what happens here is our two heroes learn to look past their own selfish needs and desires and to connect with a larger world, to both be a family unit and to help bring together other family units as well. Coping with loss means acknowledging the pain (and Up doesn't skimp, especially in the first forty minutes, on scenes that hurt) and embracing what follows, the new, the different, the unexpected. It's hard to say if I'm making excuses for a film's convoluted second act or digging into the heart of the matter and finding the true reason for it, but it does feel like a theme here is to find the next adventure and to connect with likeminded souls and to be a family, in the looser-and-so-much-more-meaningful Vonnegutian sense of the word "family."

On a stylistic note, Up walks the finest line of any modern fantasy I know of between gritty realism (the sets and action, the photography, the existence of death and despair and the gravity with which they're treated, the peril throughout, the even the use of mundane-sounding names like "Muntz" and "Russell" and "Carl Fredrickson") and broadly comic cartoonishness (the character design, the balloon-house premise, the simplicity of their mission and ease of getting to South America, the Disney's Alice in Wonderland tone of Kevin, and of course talking dogs who pilot aircraft and fear the cone of shame). Sometimes the story dips too far into one side or the other, and for my money the overly broad strokes are the trouble spots, but for the most part it manages to keep this balance surprisingly well. It's satisfying to watch and it's satisfying to think about.

Up isn't my favorite Pixar film. In some ways, it feels like one of the messiest, structurally. But in other ways, it really does feel like one of the most mature, and the messiness smacks of deliberate intent. (Compare to Wall-E, a film I personally felt had more potential in its simplicity but slipped too far into broadly-painted cartoon elements and never really came back -- the messiness there doesn't feel as deliberate.) Up feels worth closer and closer inspections, because so much is happening on so many layers. I didn't even talk about the visual symbolism -- I could write twice as much on that subject and still not crack the surface.

Pixar is famous for being the undisputed kings of western animation, and without question this is rightly so. But for all of the prettiness of their computer-generated art, character design, photography and effects, their greatest strength has always been in the writing. Nobody writes an animated script like Pixar, with tough-to-explain (let alone sell) premises and layers of meaning and emotional resonance. The screenplays are the golden secret weapon that keeps Pixar ahead of everyone else in the game, and Up is a perfect example.

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