What is Up?
It is a love story. A tragedy. A soaring fantasy, and a surreal animated comedy. A three-hankie weepie and a cliffhanging thriller. A cross-generational odd-couple buddy movie; a story of man and dog. A tale of sharply observed melancholy truths and whimsically unfettered nonsense.
On top of all that, Up opens with a standalone cartoon short (Partly Cloudy) and a newsreel, like going to the Saturday double-bill matinee 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 young Ellie, his polar opposite and kindred spirit.
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 cherished 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 (Edward 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 the old man a good turn to earn his missing “Assisting the Elderly” merit badge.
Above all, Carl is contemptuously 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 doesn’t count; Miyazaki’s doddering heroine is really a youth in a grandmother’s body.)
And then things start to unravel, and Carl’s future is no longer in his hands — not without reason, to his guilty shame. 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 you’ve seen the trailers, you don’t need me to describe it, and if by some twist you haven’t, why would I rob you of the moment of revelation? It is a sequence of singular magic, and the delight of discovery comes but once.
Suffice to say, Carl precipitously decides to throw caution to the winds and embark on the long-dormant dream he and Ellie shared: 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 one might imagine from the trailer.
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 newsreeels, Carl has left the ordinary world behind and landed in a “Lost World” of his boyhood pulp fantasies — a world of lighter-than-air airships and biplane dogfights, of exotic refugees from a Dr. Seuss zoology, of “Wallace & Gromit”–esque dogs who cook, among other things, and even (in a conceit echoing the film version of Michael Crichton’s “Lost World” tale Congo) communicate in a way that is both goofily human yet hilariously canine.
As wonky as the proceedings get, director Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.) and screenwriter and co-director Bob Peterson (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.
More fundamentally, Carl’s house, the film’s central metaphor, is the embodiment of his shared life with Ellie, and thereby a symbol of Ellie herself. 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 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.
But it goes deeper than that. Not to spoil the emotional and narrative territory, I’ll append some brief final thoughts to the end of the review for readers who have seen the film.
There is also poignancy in Russell the Wilderness Explorer’s back story, and in the simple vignettes in which, ultimately, two broken lives prop one another up. Although not as centrally or violently, Up feels the gulf of grief and betrayal in the wake of the absentee father as acutely as The Spiderwick Chronicles — another family film in which a house is much more than a house.
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, on first viewing I find the overall effect to be poignant and charming rather than enthralling.
Rarefied standards, applicable only to the work of Pixar. The very fact that I came this close to the end of this review without mentioning the studio’s name or comparing it to previous works is a testament to their sustained achievement. There was no need. Only one team in the world is doing work like this.
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?
For viewers who have seen the film, some parting thoughts about the symbolic depths of Carl’s house.
As noted above, the house represents both Carl’s shared life with Ellie and Ellie herself, who even in her absence remains the defining fixture of Carl’s life.
At first, the house — Carl’s memories, his mourning, his love for his late wife — is his refuge, his solace in a world that is moving on without him, leaving him behind. Then, in a moment of crisis, the house becomes his escape, his freedom. It buoys him up, elevates him above an intolerable situation.
As time goes on, though, the house starts to become something else: a burden. Baggage. An increasingly torpid, even ridiculous dead weight that he feels obliged to drag laboriously around everywhere he goes.
In the end, it threatens to become something worse: a death trap. It is something Carl must let go. Maybe not all at once — maybe it starts with piecemeal efforts that lighten the load — but in the end the whole thing has to be cut loose.
And then, a paradoxical miracle: Only when he lets it go does it finally take its rightful place in the whole drama of his life. The whole story-arc of the house is an astoundingly fluid metaphor for bereavement, grief, loyalty to departed loved ones, malaise and the threat of morbidity, and finally acceptance and something like peace.
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I have mostly stopped reading movie reviews prior to viewing the movies, except for the reviews you write. Perhaps I just read the wrong reviewers, but I’ve noticed that more and more of them pretty much just give away the entire story and leave no room for surprise. It’s almost as though movie reviewers these days want to make sure that the movie consumer knows exactly what their $9.00 (or whatever it costs in your market) is getting them. It sure doesn’t leave a lot of room for surprise and wonder.
This was brought to mind rather strongly in comparing your review of Up with the review published by another Christian venue for the same movie. I read yours before seeing the movie (I skipped the spoiler section on first reading, though your spoilers tend to be more coy than most), and the other review post-viewing. While I appreciated the other critic’s insights into some of the themes, I found the six or seven paragraphs summarizing almost the entire movie to be way to revealing. The review gave away too much. I say this not to pick on the other critic, but to illustrate what I see to be a general trend in movie reviews.
I’m not a particularly observant movie watcher. I know little about movie-making technique, and I rarely sit around after viewing to analyze what it was that made the story work. I find reviews helpful to tip me off to things to keep an eye out for that I might otherwise miss, insights that amplify the viewing experience, and of course, whether the movie is one I might want to see. For me, a good review is one that I can read both before and after seeing the film and get something out of each time, while also getting to enjoy the movie itself.
So thank you. Your reviews are consistently excellent (even when I have to disagree with your conclusions), and have been instrumental in pushing me to see movies I might not otherwise have seen (e.g. Sophie Scholl: The Final Days). You don’t give away the story or spoil the movie for me, either. For all these things, I am grateful. Thank you!
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I think you should up (no pun intended) your rating to an A+. I saw the movie with my teenage kids and they were moved by the incredible love of the couple. I’ve never seen love expressed so simple and so joyful in a cartoon movie.
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Thank you for your “final thoughts” on the real role of the house in Up. There was something about the house’s relationship with Carl I didn’t quite get at the time (possibly because I was holding a 2-year-old on my lap, and the moment of the great house-purging occurred just as he — the 2-year-old — ran out of cherry icee — otherwise, he sat through the entire thing in rapt attention), but your comments on how [spoiler alert] the house became a burden to be dragged around and Carl’s piecemeal attempts to rid himself of it before realizing it was a real life-trap made the whole movie click for me.
And, for what it’s worth, I was one of the guys who cried in the theater (probably the only time during the movie I was glad we’d seen it in 3‑D … those tinted buddy holly glasses are good for something). Not too many animated movies deal with the unsharable grief of a miscarriage (and certainly none with that degree of economy and emotional precision).
But then, I cried in Cars (and every other Pixar movie), too, when Route 66 gets bypassed and Radiator Springs becomes a forgotten ghost town, so maybe I’m just a sucker for a good story.
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Up was a joy. Your review not only encouraged us to go see it, it magnified our pleasure with the qualities and values it presented. Thanks for your site. You’re a gifted educator.
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Thank you for your interesting review of Up. I thought the film was “cute”, but I was personally disappointed after all the hype. Something bothered me (besides the repetitive soundtrack): there were a lot of violent elements in the film (life-threatening situations for the heroes). I understand this is a cartoon, but at the same time, this is not a film with talking cars, superheroes, animated toys, or talking animals (well … okay). We have a character who tries to kill the young Wilderness Explorer not once, not twice but three times (the last time with a shotgun!). When the crazy guy falls to his death, there is no reaction from our “heroes” (not even shock or horror) — their only concern is for the house (and for the weird bird). This situation kinda felt odd in a film geared to young kids.
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What are you opinions on the character of Kevin as a gay/transgendered character (colorful, rainbow-like character)? I’ve read that this was a subtle nod by Pixar to the Prop 8/GLBT crowd. I saw the movie and didn’t pick up on it, but others who have seen it had commented on this. I am interested to hear your opinion on this.
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I’ve read a lot of reviews of Up, but I don’t think I have heard anyone addressing this particular issue [spoiler warning]. When Carl lifts up his house for his trip to Central America, he severs his home’s plumbing and electricity. He makes it clear that he doesn’t have any more balloons or helium. He can’t go back. He only has the food he keeps in the house, and he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to find more edibles in the jungle (and he certainly isn’t prepared to hunt). If he has a medical emergency, there is no doctor or hospital for maybe hundreds of miles. That leads to one conclusion: Carl is going to South America to die.
Carl is clearly really healthy for his age (evidenced by all the physical activity he performs), but if he did succeed in moving his house to the cliffs, he would probably only have a few weeks before he died, probably of starvation. This journey is not just an adventure, it’s a suicide mission.
I think that the heart of the story lies in Russell (and also Doug’s) ability to make Carl come alive once more. Once Carl realizes that he has a responsibility to others besides himself, Carl realizes that he has to fight to stay alive.
I would like to make some comments on your final thoughts on the great metaphor that is Carl’s house. I think that in making the journey, Carl is trying to write the last chapter of his life, and the love story between himself and Ellie. By ripping it from the ground and disconnecting all pipes and wires, he has deliberately rendered it impossible to live in for very long. He has tried to draw the curtain on his life, but Russell and Doug draw it back again, and for the first time since Ellie’s death, Carl has someone to live for — thank goodness.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.