Life’s Up; Then You Die
Attached to the beginning of Pixar’s latest film, Up, is a great short film. No, not Partly Cloudy (although that is diverting). The first ten to fifteen minutes of Up work on an entirely different level than the rest of the film. They encapsulate the life of a romance from its inception until the “death do us part,” in which an introverted balloon salesman named Carl sits alone after his wife’s wake. Ellie and Carl shared a yearning for adventure, perhaps someday to travel to Paradise Falls, a South American natural wonder that absorbed their dreams and fancies as children, thanks to newsreels and pulp magazines featuring their (unfortunately disgraced) hero, Charles Muntz. Their life was quotidian, poignant, and full of love. A very average, middle-class existence. Ironically, what first brought Ellie and Carl together was a longing for improbable adventure, and while the film ultimately celebrates the regular, down-to-earth adventure of a simple life, it’s the wildly implausible, imaginative feats of derring-do that can’t hold up to the cliched litany of everyday moments that comprise the film’s magisterial opening sequence.
Whimsy and a kind of exaggerated magical realism have been the hallmarks of most of Pixar’s films to date, and it’s almost a shame that plain old sentimentality and an affinity for the rhythms of existence have finally eclipsed their far-fetched, bewitching inventions. All of their fantasies extrapolate from the elements of everyday life — childhood toys, pet fish, insects, rats in restaurants, superhero comic books, the monsters in your closet, automobiles — to create parallel narratives to our own reality. These kernels of what-if scenarios (What if our toys had social lives of their own? What if superheroes retired to civilian life? What if our pet fish missed their daddies?) give birth to entire worlds, where characters have routines that are so similar to our own, yet fascinating because of the alien context. Pixar is the world leader in postmodern fantasy, transplanting the daily grind of our world into the realm of childhood imagination, where the futuristic equivalent of an autonomous garbage truck enjoys reruns of Hello, Dolly! and action figures are capable of returning the love of their owner.
Pixar’s films are designed for families; parents can enjoy the index of puns accompanying each parallel universe, as well as the values the films teach. Kids enjoy learning those values and the spirit of adventure and friendship that are engendered by these journeys to self-awareness and self-actualization. Pixar never treats its audience like idiots, and while they make wholesome films, I rarely feel that I’m being handled with kid gloves.
Up continues Pixar’s more recent trend of focusing on human protagonists. Once Carl attaches a plethora of helium-filled balloons to his house and flies up, up, and away toward South America, he discovers that he has accidentally kidnapped a young Wilderness Explorer named Russell, and as Carl comes to terms with the fact that life is what happens when you’re making other plans, the relationship he develops with Russell is nurtured tenderly and plausibly, as if they weren’t dragging a floating house across a South American plateau accompanied by a talking dog and a giant, candy-colored bird named Kevin.
Some wonderful moments aside — and these moments do feel like asides, confectionary indulgences superfluous to the plot but endemic to the texture of the story — Pete Docter and Bob Peterson (who wrote and directed) adhere closely to the road movie/coming-of-age formula for the middle third of the film. It’s familiar, perhaps a bit twee, but I can’t stop marveling at how it has come to pass that computer animated films have given us some of the warmest, more sincere pathos in the last several years, where so much live-action, prestigious Oscar bait has failed. The dynamic between Carl and Russell is never forced, despite the elaborately contrived circumstances, settling somewhere between best friends and grandfather/grandson. By the time Russell has confided to Carl about his absentee father around a campfire, the film has regained a quaint, comfortable rhythm.
It’s upended again when long-lost aviator and adventurer, Muntz resurfaces. Before long, Up has established that Muntz has gone insane from his self-imposed South American exile, and has murdered every person who has had the misfortune to cross his path. One of the most truly unsettling scenes of the year — and this competing with the pedophiles, rapists, and mass murderers of Watchmen — showcases Muntz, lit like a refugee from Full Metal Jacket, displaying the trophies he’s taken from his victims. Following this, Up devolves into a 1930s pulp thriller, replete with much swinging from cables and garden hoses, spry chases across craggy cliffs, and narrow escapes from dogfighters (take this term as literally as possible) and bullets from Muntz’s elephant gun. Carl, who until this point, has shuffled about with the aid of a cane, is suddenly as sprightly as Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and if Harrison Ford can’t pull it off, a septuagenarian voiced by Ed Asner sure can’t.
Even with the first part of the film striking a somber tone with Ellie’s death (and a tearjerking tableaux in which she learns that she’s infertile), Up injects a rather bilious tone of violent darkness with the entrance of Muntz as the villain, unmatched even by the dastardly Syndrome in Brad Bird’s The Incredibles. Christopher Plummer crackles with smug (and rather pathetic) malevolence, the sadism of his obsession informing every line. He’s a great villain, but he seems adrift in a film that doesn’t belong to him. Even though I wanted to cheer for Carl finally getting over his beloved wife’s death and realizing that life is meant to be lived, the life of adventure that finally arrived on his doorstep was almost a little too keen, too brave, and too sadistic. Dropping a raving old madman off of a zeppelin and then celebrating with ice cream is a little too wide of a tonal gap to bridge with good intentions and whimsy, especially if the magic realism is rooted in sentimentality, which has little in common with cold-blooded murder.
Gorgeous animation, charming dialogue, and a heart in the right place will, however, patch the holes on a leaky vessel. In a better summer, perhaps I’d be less charitable toward this film. It has been a dreadful year for Hollywood product, and even Pixar is not immune. Up is one of the studio’s lower-tier films, perhaps the result of the Pixar artists all dusting off their childhood adventure diaries and cobbling together the most picturesque vignettes into a narrative. For a film — and studio ethos — so dominated by the imaginative flights of a child’s perspective, Up may represent the first Pixar film that truly had to struggle to accommodate a kid-friendly package. Family-friendly though it may be in veneer, virtually nothing about it seems truly in touch with the sense of childlike wonder that Andrew Stanton reserved even for Wall-E’s fully-autonomous, monstrous Utopia in space that kept its human in happily passive captivity.
Up is undoubtedly the most grown-up film in a canon of films that have managed to successfully join a mature emotional depth with a the limitless imagination of childhood. Even though it ultimately attempts to be life-affirming, it also affirms the sad fact that growing up can suck. It’s a harsh, backhanded (and unintended) reminder that you may want to soar through the clouds, but life has a tendency to keep both feet planted on the ground — with one in the cradle, and the other in a cold, dark grave.
Edited by Dan Swensen.