Warning: post in progress. images to come.
My father is the original misanthropic grumpy old man, so you can imagine how excited I was by a movie trailer that showed a cranky man locking his door and taking his house for a balloon ride to seeming escape others. When said cranky man opens the door to a frightened child on his airborne porch and responds to his pleas to be let in with “no” and the slamming of the door, I swore this movie was modeled after my father’s twilight years. And so I went on opening day.
While Carl Fredrickson is in fact grumpy just like the commercial, and Russell (the little boy) is as overeager and sincere as the trailer implies, Up is so much more than a cartoon version of Grumpy Old Men. The film centers around a great love affair between Carl and Ellie and the promises we keep. The two meet as young children, bonding over a desire for great adventure and a love for a disgraced adventurer named Charles Muntz. And in a montage that brought tears to most of the audiences’ eyes, we see them grow together bound by a love that is both magical and yet unidealized. The bond between Carl and Ellie anchors the adventure of the film, which involves Carl taking his house to “a forgotten land” in South America to put it in the spot that Ellie always dreamed would be their ultimate paradise.
While Terminator Salvation tells in pendantic images and actual voice over, that humanity is all about “the human heart,” Up actually shows us this same thing in both heartwarming and heartbreaking beauty. Thus Ellie, recognizing their economic constraints fills their days with work in a Zoo Safari and weekends of adventures in the shapes in the clouds. Carl makes a travel jar for their loose change and buys tickets to South America when lives unexpected expenses finally stop coming around. Little Russell takes his duty as a Wilderness Scout so seriously he puts his own life on the line to save a female bird who is hunted by Muntz and needs to return to her hungry babies, and a talking Dog whose pack has rejected him.
As Russell and Carl work to get the house to the waterfall in South America they bond in often hilarious ways. Carl’s neededness is soon revealed to be a deep longing for his absentee father. It is a role that Russell, being grumpy, doesn’t want to fill but ultimately embraces with the same abandoned he once embraced his life with Ellie.
It is hard to tell you more about this film without giving all the truly funny and heartwarming pieces away. All I can say is, if you haven’t seen it yet, this is the one summer movie you really should.
On the one hand, this is typical Disney fare. In other words, a spunky, courageous, female character who dreams of adventure ultimately chooses marriage and the potential of children over everything else. While the montage certainly conveys the couple’s devotion to one another, it also conveys the great sacrifice Ellie makes for love. She never makes it out of her small town, forced to content herself with daydreams and work in the Safari at the zoo. When she points to exotic animals she sees in the clouds, Carl turns them into babies. Instead of balking at his domestication of her dreams, she turns one baby into thousands. And while she ultimately tells Carl that loving him was the greatest adventure of her life it is hard not to think about why it is neither Disney nor Pixar could imagine a great love affair in which she was able to have both.
At the same time, the rather glaring metaphor of Carl tethered to their home until he makes good on his promise to get them too South America cannot be ignored. Where Ellie was tethered to the house in life, Carl is tethered there in her honor. And he takes his duty to their home and their dream seriously. Unlike Ellie however, Carl is finally freed from that tether and freed both by the unfolding of his own adventure and at Ellie’s prompting. Carl’s commitment to her is unwavering, but the difference between their two lives is both clearly engendered and ultimately one in which Carl has the privilege to put his domestic bliss above her spirit of adventure and take hold of new adventures with her blessing.
This summer is proving to be the summer of positive Asian American representation. Last summer Asian Americans were largely absent with the exception of “yellow face” and dragon ladies. This summer, API actors and non-stereotypical parts seem to be the norm. Up! continues this trend with the Russel (who unlike upcoming Avatar or last year’s Kung Fu Panda is voiced by an Asian American actor). Russell is a slightly overwieght, needy, young boy, who helps make this film so special. He is smart tho clumsy, compassionate tho clinging, and hs decisions often encourage Carl to do the right thing. It’s a good pairing and a great part.
Some will likely say this character continues a “fatphobia” thread in Pixars latest offerings from Shrek, to Wall-E, to Up! While it is true that Russell is a larger character, so was Carl as a kid. Neither of them are hindered by their weight, instead it just seems to be part of the typical “baby fat” image of youth Pixar was going for in both boys. Russell does spend a considerable part of the movie with a chocolate bar in hand, but this too is explained by the plot which has Russell using the chocolate bar first to capture a “Snipe” to get his merit badge and then to help the bird follow he and Carl after Carl sends the bird away. When he pulled it out of his napsack, I thought of it not as “fat kid with candy” but rather Wilderness Ranger with power bar or the stereotypical trope of the candy bar as the last piece of civilization when people are lost in the woods. Much of Russell’s character depends on these iconic images, like a GPS, a huge backpack, etc. that both highlight the increasing sophistication of camping and the utter ridiculousness of consumerized wilderness. Hence why Russel says “the wilderness isn’t like they said in the guide book.”
Another thing that is striking about this movie is that it centers an elder man. Most summer blockbusters features tweens and teens these days, none have dared make older people the center of the storyline. Yet both the main character, Carl, and his hero-turned-nemesis are in their twilight years. They are neither imagined as infirmed, sentimental (accept in the ways Carl is sentimental about Ellie), dying of terminal illnesses, or any of the other ways elders are depicted in Hollywood. In fact, the film includes a harsh criticism of the way that gentrification, urbanization, and society view elders.
I found myself thinking that had this film been live action rather than cartoon, that it would never have been marketed as a mass appeal film. It would have gone the way of the Bucket List or Cocoon. And like a comment from gay prof the other day, I found myself wondering what kind of world we live in when summer movie goers are uninterested in stories staring anyone older than high school graduate age. I’m grateful to Pixar for daring to tell us a classic love story, centering older characters rather than the younger versions of themselves like Notebook (which I loved but was definitely about their past rather than their present).
Finally, while their precarious economic situation helped to prevent Carl and Ellie from achieving their adventures together, I also appreciated a mainstream film that depicted a working class family that was neither Southern stereotype nor urban poor (read poc stereotype). Instead, Ellie and Carl were a DIY family with normal economic ups and downs caused by car problems, medical bills, and low wage but joyous jobs. In this economy, seeing other “main stream” families struggle and work it out in loving and enduring ways is really important. And yes, I’ll admit that the coin jar reminded me of my own childhood and the first trip my gf and I planned together.
Ultimately, Up! is an extrememly satisfying film. It made me cry at the losses, bellow with laughter and much of the comedic adventure, and seldom gave me pause. The one exception, was a violent turn in the plot near the end of the film that felt like maybe Pixar decided they wished they were making T4. There is an attempted murder scene, a scene where Mintz takes a shot gun to Russell, and another one with Pixar’s version of beheaded former explorers that all seem to belong in a different movie. These moments are less than 10% of the film, lend nothing, but can and should be endured for the beautiful animation and wonderful storytelling.
When I left the theater, I actually called a friend and said “I hope someone gives this to me and [the gf] for our 50th anniversary,” and I do.