“Adventure is out there” is the motto of an entire generation of kids in the film Up. While today kids grow up wanting to be Jedis and superheroes, back in the opening years of Up every kid wanted to be an explorer and discover exotic new lands filled with fantastic beauty and fanciful creatures. Carl as a young child dreams of such daring deeds as trekking to the peak of Mount Everest and crossing the Grand Canyon.
He meets another wannabe explore, Ellie (Elie Docter), who makes him swear to take the two to Paradise Falls in South America. But one thing leads to another and the pair grow up to be a married couple. And as their lives encounter those little obstacles along the way, visions of South America becomes a distant memory. Life has taken a toll on both their pocketbooks and their age, leaving the two past their prime. And then tragedy strikes Ellie dies and an old, cynical and sad Carl Fredricksen (Edward Asner) boards himself up in his house.
Almost all of this takes place in the span of a silent five minute montage as we follow the couple from marriage to newlyweds, to childless spouses to their last days together. In just five minutes the film has taken us from the highest to lowest point in Carl’s life without a single word, a testament to the power of cinema and an example of the find craftsmanship of the brilliant minds and Pixar. In those five minutes Pixar has embodied the beauty of film as a form of expressing life, love, joy as well as pain, grief and sorrow.
But like the film, Carl must move on, especially since the neighborhood is latterly falling around him to make room for the latest skyscraper. When things get heated and Carl lashes out in a moment of anger things quickly devolve and he’s told he must be put in adult care. But Carl has one last plan. Remembering his days as a child and the promise he made to Ellie he turns his house into a gigantic, makeshift hot air balloon and takes to the skies to make it to Paradise Falls.
It’s here that the plot seems like it is wavering as his initial arrival in South America sets up characters and clichés we’ve seen before. Talking animals and an annoying kid seem like the territory for poor children’s films such as Are We There Yet? and Madagascar. But the film subverts our expectations by subtlety reworking a lot of these conventions For instance, the talking dogs aren’t the usual sarcastic animal. Taking cues from Watership Down, the film lets the dogs retain their doglike traits and psyche. The over-talkative kid also becomes this sympathetic and understandable character by the end of the runtime.
But like the young Carl who never said a word, the most magnificent moments of these films are the wordless ones. Pixar has always crafted fantastic images but here is the first time they heavily rely on them as a storytelling device. Almost all of Carl’s emotional expression is told through the images such as the aforementioned montage but also the big gloom gives way to revelation when Carl comes to a radiant revelation about his life without a single word spoken.
His dreams of grand adventure and daring feats are just that, dreams. The real adventure turns out to be far more dangerous, unpleasant and tedious than he expected. His old age and annoying companions as well as the harsh elements and local wildlife make the journey itself a joyless affair. It’s the third act before he realizes the true adventure to be had, what is worth it and how sometimes the drive to adventure can be a dark, dangerous thing.
Up is Pixar’s finest, not so much for the story itself—after all, a story is never about what it’s about—but because of how it expresses humanity, adventure and life. Pixar has made a number of insightful, powerful films but this is their first real human drama and it’s simultaneously a grand adventure and a thoughtful contemplation. It’s the first Pixar film that fully embraces their adult audience and explores existence with a skill and gravitas that stands among the greatest of human dramas.
© 2009 James Blake Ewing