a theatre, film & pop culture review
Something has been a bit off with Pixar. Though enjoyable, I never quite understood the excitement over The Incredibles. Cars was utterly boring. Ratatouille was cute, but lacked a vitality of inspiration. And WALL•E, which began with such invigorating promise, abruptly devolved into cute-robot-saves-the-day dreck. Pixar, the company I had built such high hopes for based on the visual delights and depths of emotion presented in the Toy Storys and Finding Nemo, was dropping the ball.
And then I saw Up.
Everything I had been missing about Pixar was there: complex human emotion presented through beautifully simple storytelling, clever dialogue and honest humor, and breathtaking, fantastical feats of visual imagineering. Within the first ten minutes of the film, I had laughed loudly and openly, abruptly and quietly wept, and then laughed again before I had a chance to wipe away the tears.
The story is simple: we watch as the withdrawn Carl (the wonderful, curmudgeonly Ed Asner) meets his childhood sweetheart and fellow adventurer, the charmingly boisterous Ellie. Through a brilliantly calibrated and underscored sequence sans dialogue, we witness them fall in love and marry; we weep with Ellie upon the devastating realization that she cannot have the children they so longed for, and we whole-heartedly root for them as they save and plan for the South American adventure they had always dreamt of experiencing together. When life gets in the way and their grand plan falls to the wayside, that’s exactly when the adventure begins: Carl attaches a rainbow of balloons to their lifelong home, and in a loving tribute to his beloved Ellie, steers the makeshift contraption to Paradise Falls, along the way, learning the life lessons of how to let go and open himself to new experiences and new loves. Of course, Carl does this all with the help of a quirky and endlessly amusing supporting cast of characters including the youngand adorably earnest boyscout-stowaway, Russell, the loyal and lovable canine, Doug, and the maniacal foil and one-time idolized explorer, Charles Muntz (the always wonderful, and in this case, delightfully despicable, Christopher Plummer).
While the story is predictably conventional, there’s a reason Carl’s tale of loss and rediscovery is one of the oldest narratives in existence: it is universally true, resonating with all audiences, everywhere. Carl’s tale is heartbreaking and heartwarming, and Pixar tells it so thoroughly and subtly, and with such elegance and understanding of the human experience, that instead of overpowering the beautiful simplicity of the story, the awe-inspiring animation elevates and enhances its inherent narrative delights through lush coloring, vibrant characterizations, and heartrending sequences. The title is more than fitting: as Carl and his house of balloons alternately ascends and falls, paralleling his life journey, we know that no matter how weighed down or disheartening life becomes, there’s nowhere to go but Up. And that genuine and open optimism creates the best kind of (Pixar) adventure.