Summary Judgement: I hate animated cutesy-poo “fun for the whole family” movies. But I didn’t hate this one. In fact, Up delightfully contrasts escapist fantasy with images of the real world, in all its sadness.
Directed by: Pete Docter and Bob Peterson
Written by: Pete Docter, Bob Peterson and Thomas McCarthy
Starring the voices of: Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, Bob Peterson and John Ratzenberger
For a film that includes children in its target audience, Up explores some surprisingly powerful themes. During its relatively short runtime, the movie deals with, or at least mentions, gentrification, the loss of loved ones, divorce, emotional neglect, the nanny state, animal cruelty and fallen heroes. These grim themes are balanced with an enduring motif of friendship, camaraderie, a genuinely funny archetype of the cantankerous old bastard and, of course, sentient dogs. However, the film is more than just an emotional balancing act on the road to a happy ending. Indeed, Up resists the temptation to sermonize on the ills of modern life. Instead, the movie reflects the reality that bad things tend to punctuate the lives of good people.
The movie’s principle characters are an odd couple: Carl, a septuagenarian widower (Ed Asner) and Russell, an overweight pre-teen of divorced parents (Jordan Nagai). Both of these characters ooze pathos. The opening montage charts Carl’s relationship with his deceased wife, Ellie. Carl and Ellie share a dream to visit the South American locale of Paradise Falls. The financial exigencies of real life, however, constantly seem to get in the way of the couple’s travel plans. This montage also offers a rather daring moment of honesty when we see Carl and Ellie in a 1960’s prenatal clinic. Despite financial problems and their inability to have a child, Carl and Ellie live a happy life together. Pixar scores major points for eschewing the hetero-normative assumption procreation is requisite to a happy marriage. The montage, which culminates in Ellie’s death, leaves Carl cranky, paranoid and a creature of routine. With Ed Asner’s voice giving life to a character that so brilliantly embodies the situation of elderly male widowers, my grandfather counted among that group, that I couldn’t help but empathize with the old coot. That emotional connection let me suspend disbelief when it came to the concept of floating one’s house to South America via helium balloons.
Then there’s Russell. Russell is equal parts overly keen and overly fed. As a Wilderness Scout, he wants nothing more than to earn his ‘helping the elderly’ badge. While this will allow him to graduate to ‘Senior Scout’ it will also necessitate his absentee father pinning the final badge on his uniform. This desire for paternal approval is at the core of Russell’s character, matched only by his devotion to duty as a Wilderness Scout. My fear as I watched the movie was that Russell’s need for approbation would be awkwardly forced on to Carl. Again, the writers and directors surprised me. The creative team refrained from going there too early in the film, instead leaving that moment of paternal bonding for the very end. For most of the movie, Carl and Russell are just two people, both very lonely due to the recent losses in their lives. Some might call that trite. I call it honest since it presents fictionalized children as something other than vapid testaments to the innocence of days past without getting into that nonsense about empowering children, barf.
Up might not address all world’s problems, but it should be commended for the fact that it acknowledges some of the West’s glaring imperfections. One such scene shows how Russell’s girth prevents him from climbing a hose to Carl’s floating house. Certainly, the lad’s lack of physical prowess is fine comedic fodder. However, it also gives parents an opportunity to critically evaluate their own little doughy video game warriors. Then again, my estimate is that the lousy parents who don’t consider such things vastly outnumber the good parents. The message will likely end up preaching to the choir or wasted on the folk who let Bill Gates and Steve Jobs do the bulk of their parenting.
I will say that I could have done without the sentient dogs; they were cute for the sake of funny, so I guess that is okay. If robots, generic henchmen, or even robot henchmen replaced the dogs, the movie would not lose much. Perhaps something had to give to keep a PG rating on the film. Though, who needs a voice box collar to know what a dog is thinking? I know what my cat is thinking. It goes like this, “No matter where you go in the house, I’m going to get there first and be just slightly in your way but too cute for you to do anything about it. It’s going to keep going down like that until you stop feeding me that dehydrated crap and serve me up the same kind of steak that you eat. Alternatively, you could have the vet make me not a eunuch. Occasionally, I will vomit just to watch you clean it up.”
That last paragraph perfectly illustrates my point about the talking dogs. It might be a little funny, but it’s not really necessary.
Overall, Up is a decent piece of reasonably original story telling. That in of itself should merit a viewing. If you need more, the movie offers shiny CGI – with a 3D option for those into that sort of thing – a soundtrack inspired by classical music, not Randy Newman or Miley Ray Montana, and some poignant but still funny characters. It might not be Wall-E, but Up is certainly worth watching.
Overall score: +2.75