by Jeff Reichert
Dir. Peter Docter, U.S., Disney/Pixar
Describing what a film does—how the camera moves, what kinds of cuts it employs and to what ends, who’s been placed in the frame and in what roles—is the film critic’s easiest job. Describing how a film works is a far more difficult matter. This is a seemingly subtle but expansive distinction: the does captures the nuts and bolts, the gears that grind each film forward from start to finish, while the works exists in that uneasy intersection between text and viewer where ephemeral, elusive meaning is created. Perhaps elementary, but when criticism is so often caught up merely with the descriptive rather than the interpretive it’s worth occasionally stepping back to delineate the rules of engagement. In the case of films actively poking at viewers’ emotional triggers (which could be said of “all films,” inasmuch as movies rely generally on some degree of empathetic feeling in their viewers to induce continued interest, however here I’m thinking more specifically about those emotions which produce tears) we’re venturing into the irrational, less explainable, arenas of criticism—what moves one to experience emotion is about as individual as it comes. But that doesn’t mean it’s enough for a critic to state that a film is moving and then, ahem, move on.
Up, the latest creation from Pixar, directed by Peter Docter (Monsters, Inc.), left me incredibly touched, dewy-eyed, and inclined to ponder questions of mortality and lifetime partnership. Wait, wasn’t this supposed to be a movie for kids? Early on, as I searched my pockets for a tissue, a young girl, likely no more than six or seven years old, exclaimed from a few rows back, “Mommy, this is really sad!” This off-screen moment of cross-generational collusion encapsulates the unique charms of the Pixar world. Even though there is a specificity to elderly protagonist Carl Fredricksen’s quest—that it begins on the heels of the death of his wife and longtime companion, Ellie—the way Docter sketches their relationship from initial meeting to Ellie’s passing, skipping like a stone through wordless, warmly elegant vignettes from their lives which grow increasingly painful as they age (most devastatingly, the realization that the pair cannot bear children), and the end becomes certain, encompasses enough legible life experience that even a child barely familiar with death still understood the overwhelming sense of loss. “Universal” is kind of a bunk word for describing this kind of thing. I prefer “human”, and this sequence, almost a literal paging-through the photo album of Carl and Ellie’s time together instantly grounds Up in a very realistic world: of growing old as a couple, of living life after a partner is gone—the serious stuff that’s usually far from the realm of mainstream American filmmaking.
The shock of finding this material in Up is counterbalanced by the elegance with which it’s handled. Carl and Ellie’s is one of the deepest, most honest screen romances I can readily recall, pretty miraculous given that half of the central couple has passed away before the narrative really begins. Docter first introduces us to Carl and Ellie as two children obsessed with exploration. Carl’s shy, almost mute, Ellie rambunctious and topped with a shock of red hair— the perfect odd couple. After their initial adventure in an abandoned house, Ellie sneaks into Carl’s room that night, surprising him. Her smiling goodbye, “You don’t say much. I like you” (Carl’s spoken nary a word up to this point), segues unexpectedly to their wedding day years later. Still adventurers to the core, the pair sets aside a fund to help finance all the trips abroad they plan on taking, but life consistently intervenes in the form of illnesses or house damage and the constant smashing of their glass piggy banks to feed immediate needs underscores their aging and how their dreams of adventure continually fall further and further away.
One day, Ellie slips a little while climbing the hill to their favorite picnic spot. It isn’t long after that she’s gone. The course of Carl and Ellie’s life together is story enough for one movie (if, of course, mainstream American movies—save a good recent example in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—were actually concerned with life and death), but Docter dispatches it in a mere five minutes, leaving us with an embittered, present-day Carl holding on to the memory of his wife and the home they shared, in the face of a massive construction development project happening all around his house’s creaky frame. Threatened with eviction and incarceration in an old folks’ home, Carl does what any sensible man of his age would do: tie several thousand balloons to his roof, rig some curtain sails and transform his abode into an impromptu flying machine.
The release of the balloons recalls the wondrous beauty of that San Francisco–set commercial which sent thousands of multicolored rubber balls bouncing down the city’s streets. With this image Up nimbly moves us from a very real, immeasurably sad scenario into a lighter almost surrealistic mode—it seems the kind of thing Fellini might have dreamt up had he access to CG animation (or might he have tried it anyway?). Docter bridges this divide largely by ignoring it and plunging headlong into a reality bound by another set of rules. Even so, the shock of loss lingers. Carl’s headed for Paradise Falls in South America, a locale he had planned to visit with Ellie before she died, even going so far as to purchase the plane tickets. He’s accompanied by a stowaway: Russell, a neighborhood kid and pint-sized wannabe adventurer badly in need of a father figure. The two land in South America with a depleted balloon flotilla and use themselves as walking anchors to power Carl’s makeshift airship to its final resting place at the top of the falls. If Russell grows tiresome as a device (he’s there to pull the old man out of his wounded shell), the images of the pair trudging along, floating house in tow, are immaculate and indelible (and nicely enhanced by the subtle 3-D shading). Carl’s quixotic journey is derailed several times, as the needs of a Pixar narrative require, but that image resonates in epic, iconic fashion.
Like all Pixar films, Up is compromised given how inextricably these massive productions are bound to serving the commercial imperative. If the studio’s films can’t satisfy children, then there will be no international barnstorming, no recoupment, no Pixar (that Toy Story 3 is on the horizon suggests that the last few films haven’t quite been hitting their projections). They shouldn’t receive a free pass, however, and that so many of their films have been so beloved in all quarters speaks less to some kind of balance they’ve been able to strike between arbitrary ideas of “high” and “low” than to their uncomplicated humanity—“simplexity,” as the minds of Pixar have taken to calling it. (It doesn’t hurt that their handling of the expected madcap blockbuster machinery is often so dexterous and ingenious.) Up features the same ramp into mayhem as the rest of the Pixar brood—some nonsense about a mythical bird, an old-time adventurer with an axe to grind, and his pack of talking dogs—but for my money it apportions its silliness more evenly than, say, Wall*E which back-ended the easy gags (fat, floating humans) almost guiltily after its stunning opening. And it never forgets the romance that launched it; following an initial burst of the frenetic, Docter quietly returns us to the memory of Ellie. Seemingly at the end of his voyage, Carl opens the scrapbook Ellie had begun as a child (introduced early in the film), only to see that the pages that had once been blank in anticipation of future adventures are now filled, but with photos capturing memories of their very ordinary life together—the opening sequence made all the more poignant for being located in memory. Her closing epigraph, “thanks for the adventure,” redefines the notion of “adventure” within the bounds of the quotidian, a great, moving vantage point from which to view the entirety of a life.
Of course, more mayhem ensues, and Docter dispatches it (an air battle featuring Carl’s house, a zeppelin, and a trio of literal dog fighters) quickly and with aplomb, but what one remembers from Up are its quieter moments and the invisible storyline that drives it. A film in which the hero is near-deaf, relies on a walker, and is so haunted by the idea of the life that he didn’t live in time that he ventures on an impossible Sisyphean quest sounds more the domain of European auteur cinema (like Claire Denis’s L’Intrus) than the world of children’s filmmaking (it certainly doesn’t easily translate into a stuffed collectible). Perhaps that’s why folks skimming the internet over the past few days have seen huge ads for the film featuring Up’s main comedic foil, the talking dog “Dug” with a only a little sidebar of Carl and Russell hidden elsewhere on the page. On the heels of the NASCAR-humping Pixar nadir, Cars, their bounce back has been strong and daring: Ratatouille made a more convincing case for the power and pleasure of good eating than the upcoming Food, Inc.; Wall*E went Chaplin-silent for a child-attention-span busting length; and now Up’s managed to weave the heavy implications of mortality in and around its typical action-adventure narrative.
Up does hit hard on its one big gag—the aforementioned pack of talking dogs. Thankfully it’s a pretty good one, like classic Spielberg in its childlike appeal without ever devolving (though it teeters) into childishness. Up would have been a “better” movie sans villain, mythical bird, and all those things that will likely most please the youngest quadrant of its eventual audience. But then “better” is always highly relative. For its part, Up sublimates wildly disparate elements as well as anything Pixar’s put forth thus far, and Carl Fredricksen marching interminably across a landscape, floating house in tow, dead wife and unfulfilled expectations hanging over him, is a classic image one could imagine any number of filmmakers spinning into cinematic gold. Unfortunately for them, the unassuming Pete Docter’s gotten there first. I still hold out hope that someday Pixar might produce an honest-to-goodness film for adults (and, it should be noted, that it would be nice to find similar sensitivity deployed around the narrative of a same-sex couple), but for now they’ve been churning out the next best thing. Up is Pixar to the core, for better and for worse. Mostly better.