Many movie critics (and movie goers) would love to walk out of a theater being able to say, “I laughed, I cried.” The problem is, I don’t cry. Not at the movies, anyway. Out of the 56 movies I have reviewed, only one made me tear-up. But I wasn’t tearing up because I was sad (I knew the Beast was going to re-incarnate). I was tearing up because of how good the storytelling was.
The Unique Premise
Much like how I felt about WALL-E afterwards (how in the world was it so good, no, great!), I questioned Up from the very start. How in the world is Pixar going to even sell a movie to kids if the main character is an old grandpa? How are they going to be able to relate to him? What is Up even going to be about? A house on balloons? What a stupid idea. For the first time, I thought Pixar was going to produce their first bad film. Against all odds, Pixar does it again. Pixar continues to surprise me.
Why did Pixar hide Ellie away from us? I mean, I just wasn’t expecting this to be a love story, and then they get married in like 5 minutes. And then they turn old a couple minutes later. And… no, no! They’re going to kill off Ellie? Okay, no, I think she dies of natural causes, but still, a love story and a subsequent death in 8 mintues? Only Pixar could pull this off, no, make that one of cinema’s greatest montages… ever. I usually dislike movie montages. I think they are all kind of the same, generic, trailer-reminiscent, easy-way-out method of fast forwarding time. I’d much rather just skip forward in time and have everything we need to learn established then. But… this movie montage is Pixar’s best short. Every theatrical release of Pixar has been preceded with an animated short, and Pixar’s Carl and Ellie love story montage shows why Pixar does that. They are just so good at telling stories with so little time, and the first ten minutes of Up is Pixar’s finest work. It represents Pixar storytelling. Risky, but crafted with care. Funny, but filled with heart. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.
So the real climax happens towards the end after the Pixar moment, but I wasn’t necessarily a big fan of it. Just some obligatory action to finish the film with some excitement. So I’m going to talk about the climax that allows the story to take off: when Carl lifts his house with balloons to make good on a promise he made to Ellie.
Unfortunately (for Carl), a boy scout named Russell unexpectedly came along for the ride. But for the audience, I think Russell brings some much needed humor into a film that could have easily been depressing like The Incredibles’ first act.
We also get the addition of Kevin, a colorfully exotic bird, and Dug, a dog with a collar that allows him to speak, to also lift the general mood of the movie. Even though Kevin can’t say anything comprehensible like her (yes, Kevin is a female) comic relief counterpart in Dug, a lot of her humor comes visually, and the noises she does make are funny in themselves.
Dug’s dialogue perfectly captures the essence of a dog, and it makes for a few chuckles.
But by the time all of these side-characters make their appearances, I felt Pixar’s story was wandering aimlessly. What was the point of that love story? Just as a motivator for Carl? What happens when they get the house to the other side of Paradise Falls? Whereas WALL-E made me explore for themes and established a plethora of symbols in its first two acts, Up had only established one symbol by this point. Perhaps this is why the Pixar moment hit me so hard.
The Pixar Moment
If there is one Pixar character I can best relate with, its Carl. Quiet in nature, he almost never expresses his feelings in words. But as I watched Carl live out his life without Ellie, I got this incredibly sad feeling that I knew Carl. Carl is going through the all too familiar feelings of regret and guilt.
He maintains the same routine he had with Ellie. He keeps the furniture squeaky clean and in their exact locations. There is a particularly revealing scene in the film when a storm disturbs the house and Carl scrambles to try and salvage the furnishings as if it is his way of protecting Ellie. This happens earlier as well when Carl hits a construction worker in the head with his walking stick after his crew accidentally knocks into Carl’s mailbox.
I got this incredibly sad feeling whenever Carl spoke to the house. No one who values a promise as much as Carl should have to go through what he is going through. It is precisely this promise that drives Carl to place the house exactly where Ellie dreamed it would be.
Finally, Carl gets his house to Paradise Falls. He places the furniture back in their exact location. He sits down. The story is dead, I thought. Then, he picks up the adventure book Ellie gave to him before she passed away; the scrapbook that was going to record all the adventures Ellie was going to have when she got to Paradise Falls. Carl looks at it, and is still left unsatisfied.
He opens it, and notices Ellie has put pictures in the pages reserved for all the adventures she was going to have.
When Ellie died, I was on the verge of tears not because of how good the storytelling was, but because of how sad I was. They had so many hopes and dreams that never came into fruition. A relationship with so much potential, I thought. But I was proven wrong. The success of their relationship wasn’t based on having children or taking a trip to a certain location. It was based on how happy they were with one another. They didn’t need any of that to be happy. They just needed each other.
I was on the verge of tears once again after Carl flipped the last page of Ellie’s adventure book. I was just so happy for Carl. So happy that he was going to be able to move on from this promise to a promise he made to Russell. But I wasn’t crying. Not yet, at least.
When Carl starts throwing all of the furniture outside his house to try and lift the house again, it was too much for me. I had to bring my hand to my eyes and make sure no one saw the state I was in while watching a children’s film. That is the power of Pixar.
Throughout the film, I felt heavy, dragged down by the sorrow and almost schizophrenic-like behavior of a man who lost everything that was important to him. But as Carl is literally hurling all his stuff, I knew he was also letting go of all his regret, guilt, and sorrow. As a result, the audience feels uplifted, and the house can fly once again. Carl can live his life again.
I laughed at Russell. I laughed at Kevin. I laughed at Dug. I was tearing up in sadness. I was tearing up in happiness. And finally, I cried. I was inspired. Although Up has a lot of filler and patches of either slow or unclear storytelling, it has the best Pixar moment. It contains Pixar’s best short. Its soundtrack and artistic vision is second to only Finding Nemo. And although I would put Up second to the more consistent WALL-E, it has moments more beautiful than what even Beauty and the Beast offers. These moments put Up in the discussion for the best animated film of all time.
Probably my favorite message from Up comes at the very end of the movie. Carl sacrifices his house to save Russell, Kevin, and Dug. He watches it float into the clouds. Another bittersweet moment in the film.
Ellie always wanted three things. She wanted adventure, she wanted kids, and she wanted to place her house on Paradise Falls. In a way, all of these things did come true, but in ways we thought weren’t possible. Ellie got her adventure with Carl. Carl is living out Ellie’s dream by being a father-figure for Russell. I think it goes to show that life never quite works out the way we intend for it. But if you have the right mindset, you will have your adventure. Adventure is out there! You just have to go out and discover it.
Final Grade: A (96%)–I laughed, I cried, and finally, I was uplifted.