One of the things that I love about Pixar is that they
remember what a lot of filmmakers – and sadly, particularly those working in
the CG medium – have forgotten:
A film needs a story.
So many films today focus on technological dazzle, shock value, making pretty
pictures, or cleverness. None of these are bad things; any and all of them can
add enjoyment, but for me a good story is more important than anything else. I’ll
enjoy the spectacle, the beauty, the wit, but what stays with me is the story.
If story is absent, everything else fades quickly. Pixar’s films have had
consistently strong storytelling, letting the characters carry the viewer along
on their adventures, and this summer’s offering, [[[Up]]], is no exception.
Up doesn’t come near to matching the sheer dazzling brilliance of last
summer’s [[[Wall-E]]], but it is a sweet and charming movie in its own right,
and like Wall-E, it remembered to have a story.
Not only that, but Up takes a startling number of storytelling risks,
particularly for a movie aimed at children.
First there was the absolutely heartbreaking montage of Carl
and Ellie trying to save for their dream trip, and having their dream
constantly derailed by crisis after crisis, only to have Ellie fall ill and die
just as the trip was finally in their reach. This montage is also a rare
instance of a wedding being the beginning of a couple’s story rather than the
“happily ever after.” Seeing Carl lose the legal battle to stay in his home was
Next was the fact that the families shown in the movie were not the perfect, happy family of mom, dad, and kids so beloved by Hollywood and by Disney in particular. Carl and Ellie were unable to have children, and Russell is a child of divorce with a father more interested in the woman he’s dating than he is in Russell. It was also really nice to see Russell’s mom in the audience of his Wilderness Scout ceremony – it helps to balance all the dead and missing mothers in Disney movies of yore. Additionally, neither imperfection was dwelt upon or made into a huge tragedy – a passing scene in Carl and Ellie’s montage, a disgusted comment by Russell about “Phyllis”, and that was it. These families were treated as normal, as the way things sometimes are in the world.
The fact that for most of the story Carl is an old man is unusual, particularly in today’s youth-centric culture, and it was good to see him painted as a real person with feelings and depth rather than the stereotypical “cranky old coot.” It was also nice to see an Asian character who avoided a lot of stereotypes: Russell wasn’t brilliant at math or science, a technogeek, or a raving anime fan – he was just a kid. Being Asian was so beside the point that it’s never mentioned. He did use a GPS, but I saw that less as the Asian technogeek stereotype than a comment on “kids these days with their gadgets.”
Finally, when Carl’s childhood idol appears (which I totally didn’t expect because I am dumb), he turned out to be an unadulterated villain. That was a risky move, and one that paid off brilliantly, particularly since it gave Carl a direct focus for his rage and frustration, rather than simply an uncaring world that seemed intent on robbing him and Ellie of their dream.
In a way, all this realism undermined the movie a bit, because going from that to the more fantastical elements in the South America part of the film felt a bit jarring. (Don’t ask me why I was bothered by the giant party-colored birds and talking dogs, but not by the flying house. The only thing I can think of is the flying house is the premise of the whole film so you sort of have to accept it if you’re going to watch the thing at all.) A friend of mine commented on Up’s similarities to [[[The Wizard of Oz]]]; I can’t help wondering whether it would have felt less jarring if Carl had actually landed in a more otherworldly place – perhaps South America, like most places in the world today, is a little too well-explored to seem magical to us.
Overall, though, Up tells a sweet and very enjoyable story. The sadder parts were handled with a deft, compassionate touch, and were balanced out by scenes like that of Carl slowly descending the staircase in his chair, to that tune from [[[Carmen]]] that is now quite thoroughly stuck in my head (thank you very much, movie!) which was far funnier than it really had any right to be. Ellie filling the Adventure Book of pictures of her life with Carl made me mist over. The idea that ordinary life can be just as big of an adventure as a fantastical trip to faraway lands, and more importantly that she didn’t feel cheated out of her dream, is both touching and surprisingly deep for an animated children’s film – which I think sums it up perfectly, no pun intended.