Pixar is that magical Emeryville-based animation company that can do no wrong (except, perhaps, for the Cars franchise; otherwise, their output is perfection). In 2009, Pixar released what may be its magnum opus to date: UP. It’s a fun, entertaining romp involving a balloon-borne house, animal friends, and the remote jungles of South America. The kids will love it without noticing its deeper themes, but at its heart UP is a beautiful and poignant meditation on love and loss that can be easily appreciated by adults.
UP generated talk for its use of an octogenarian protagonist, which is kind of unheard of in the world of children’s films. Carl Fredricksen, voiced by Ed Asner, is a square-shaped old man with a permanent scowl. He has just lost the love of his life, his wife Ellie, and he is about to lose the quaint house they shared to a ruthless contractor. Carl has, in a way, given up. He feels that with Ellie gone, he has lost everything, and the only thing he can do now is hold on to every remnant of their life together. This includes the house, the furniture inside it, the mementos on the mantel (all of which the Pixar storytelling wizards do a fantastic job of imbuing with significance and subjectivity), and Ellie’s Adventure Book, a photo album she put together when they were childhood playmates.
It is this same Adventure Book that Carl uses to live out one last dream, the one he and Ellie talked about but never acted upon. Using hundreds of balloons, Carl sets his house afloat and, in an eye-popping and awe-inspiring sequence, soars over the neighboring buildings and sets off for South America — specifically, Paradise Falls, the dream destination that filled the pages of Ellie’s book.
Initially, seeing the house take to the air is cathartic and lovely. However, over the course of the film the house becomes something of a burden. Carl is literally and symbolically tied to the house, unable to let a single of its contents go because for him they represent all that is left of his beloved wife. When he must decide between preserving the house atop Paradise Falls, as he and Ellie dreamed, and coming to the rescue of his newfound friends, including a very vocal but lovable Wilderness Explorer (read: Boy Scout) named Russell, Carl finally realizes he has to let go and move on. This epiphany is aided by a message from Ellie that he finds in the last pages of the Adventure Book: “Thanks for the adventure. Now, go have a new one!”
Even though she only appears in the opening minutes, Ellie is present throughout the story, as Carl’s love for her drives the entire film. His “new adventure” is his embrace of a life without her, and this includes becoming a mentor and grandfather figure to little Russell. But his love for her is always there, as illustrated by Carl’s bequeathal of a special “Ellie badge” to Russell for his Wilderness Explorer sash. The fantastic adventure involving talking dogs, gargantuan birds, and zeppelins may be a little more than your average person can expect to experience; but it all ultimately adds up to one crazy, cathartic healing journey. Even through the wackiness, the story is simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring, and completely beautiful.
Watch this montage from the opening minutes of the movie, which chronicles Carl and Ellie’s life together and is probably the best four-minute summation of love ever committed to film. Or even better, watch the whole film. It might be one of the few that truly is great for all ages.
Photo credits: Pixar