Is Up the first Pixar creation where characters spill blood? That’s not what makes the film so special, but the inspired sense of scale, thoughtful framing, and dreamlike interplays of colors and shapes, the simultaneous fear and joy roused by its nutty flights of fancy and suspense, and the fearless emotional affect its story never ceases to risk.
A series of colorful vignettes on love, fidelity, and adventure, Pete Docter’s film conflates from its very first, Citizen Kane-referencing sequence—in which a young Carl Fredrickson (Edward Asner), eyes agog, watches a black-and-white newsreel celebrating the rise and fall of famed explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer)—the act of watching movies with the ecstasies and banalities of living. Life, like going to the movies, is seen as a grand communal experience, a ride worth enduring even when it teeters toward and over the brink of nightmarish abysses.
A life without adventure isn’t a life worth living, the film suggests, but Up’s definition of adventure isn’t limited to attaching helium-filled balloons to one’s house and riding it to a Venezuelan waterfall. A mini-masterpiece as near-silent as Carl was when he was smitten as a child by Ellie after the screening celebrating Muntz’s travels and banishment from the world, Up’s opening montage is a sentimental recounting of a lifelong love affair, a poetic rumination on the manner in which dreams are shared, and a bittersweet acknowledgement of how such desires can sour over time or are deferred by the demands of modern living.
Old and alone, Carl has been visibly hardened by regret (the lines on his face tell no lies), but after the twin intrusions of a noisy construction site surrounding the perimeter of his house and an adorably chunky Asian boy, Russell (Jordan Nagai), hankering to fulfill a merit badge requirement, the old man takes to the skies, his first step in understanding life as something more than a short period of time in which we are alive (to quote Philip Roth), but as a short period of time worth living to its fullest and to its absolute grandest.
Per usual, the nuances of human relationships are conveyed via Pixar’s acute attention to detail, coded in mysterious evocations of mood. It’s in the way that Carl and Ellie’s dreams are reflected in the people, places, and things they see in the clouds above their heads; the way their reverie is unsettlingly mirrored in the prismatic rocks that surround the jungle mountaintop of the fictional Paradise Falls; how Carl’s acceptance of Russell—not just the boy’s very presence, but his bravery, compassion, loneliness, and sense of wonder—constitutes a restoration of hope and essentially provides the old man with the child he could never have.
Picking and choosing what matters most to Carl at any given moment becomes the man’s essential (and existential) crisis, which begins with the old man trying to realize Ellie’s dream of living atop Paradise Falls and ends with his recognition of the house—essentially a tomb clattering with memento moris—as an albatross weighing him down. In this way, the film profoundly explores the connections between spiritual, cultural, and material hunger.
What bliss this film is—Pixar’s finest since Docter’s Monsters, Inc.—and how cannily it sidesteps the contrivance and disdain that WALL-E succumbs to in its second half. In Venezuela, the credibly crotchety Carl and Russell are confronted by a series of characters who either expose, realize, or rebuke the duo’s hopes, fibs, and understanding of everything from wilderness and conquest to devotion and death: a ghostly figure from Carl’s past engaged in a dangerously selfish game of wish-fulfillment; an anarchic, mythical bird with a taste for chocolate as strong as her maternal instincts; and a pack of dogs equipped with collars that translate their canine language to the human tongue of one’s choice—even hillbilly!
This last conceit is cute, yes, but profound in its simplicity and what it reveals about our relationship to beings we’ve deemed subservient to us: That these pooches have been fitted with these devices speaks to one character’s need to strip the world of its mysteries, but what the dogs say—and how—sweetly corroborates what we’ve always known about the essential goodness, deceptive simplicity, selflessness, devotion, and malleability of man’s best friend.
Dug (voiced by screenwriter Bob Peterson) and the other dogs—Beta (Delroy Lindo), Gamma (Jerome Ranft), and Alpha (Petersen)—are fiercely loyal to their master. That is, until the nuances of the master’s plan become clear and Dug, stinging from a sense of betrayal and lack of appreciation he seems oblivious to and that no machine could ever possibly hope to decipher, innocently joins forces with Carl, Russell, and their “snipe” (whose feathers are as colorful as the balloons that carry Carl’s house and whose popping of those balloons becomes is more salvation than roadblock) on a quest through a land lost to time, in scenes so visually dense and gripping they nearly rouse vertigo—all to fulfill and improve themselves.
Still wary of 3D? Though more times than not it feels gimmicky and intrusive, Up’s selective use of the technology verifies Pixar’s gift for laying out landscapes that that are at once expansive and expressive. To the end, the film works out adult ideas about our notions of self, our sense of disappointment and complacency, and the hopes—like the people and animals that surround Carl—that we’re always choosing to either look up or down to, and doing so in a language so intense in its clarity and depth that it needs no translation at all.