I dare you to watch the first fifteen minutes of Up and not bawl your eyes out. After introducing us to Ellie and Carl (Ed Asner) as children, the film captures their entire life together by way of a musical montage showcasing their ambitions, disappointments, and concessions all the while reminding us that, while love doesn’t, in fact, conquer all, it remains something to behold even in the most mundane of contexts. The sequence reaches, in my humble opinion, cinematographic perfection, capturing all the woes and wonders of existence without a single line of dialogue in under the time it takes to cook Kraft macaroni and cheese.
Consider the sequence’s final shot, the detail and complexity of its composition. Carl, now an old man, is sitting alone at Ellie’s funeral. Because he’s facing the aisle rather than the altar, we gather that a proper ceremony took place and that his friends and family have all gone. Floating balloons fill the empty space on his left, symbols of the day the life-long lovers met and the career they shared at the zoo. The screen cuts off at his right, where lies the unknown future. When our hero finally gets up to start the movie proper, he of course heads toward the past.
It occurs to me this is perhaps the first animated blockbuster in America to be made primarily for adults. Sure, we’ve had Heavy Metal (1981) and Ralph Bakshi’s psychedelic flights of fancy in the seventies and early eighties, but those really addressed stunted adolescents who still find naked boobies and penis jokes terribly compelling. Up, in contrast, is safe for children but tackles issues to which only an audience with considerable life experience can relate: grief, regret, neglect, and the perils of refusing to adapt our dreams to the world around us.
This is not to say Up lacks in imagination and adventure. Feeling like he’s got no place left in the world, Carl straps his house to his remaining supply of helium balloons and sets off to fulfill his wife’s childhood dream: move to Paradise Falls in South America. Along the way and largely despite himself, the old curmudgeon finds a number of unlikely kindred spirits, including an exotic bird named Kevin, a talking dog called Dug (Bob Peterson), and an overly eager Wilderness Explorer scout from the city (Jordan Nagai) who could surely sue for child endangerment.
Each adds a different layer to the story. Kevin, for example, serves as the secondary MacGuffin, which the villain, Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), has spent over half a century trying to capture. His wasted life functions as a cautionary tale for those of us who might confuse pursuing our dreams with letting them consume us, dovetailing beautifully into Carl’s own mad ambition to get his house to the spot Ellie drew as a girl. Whereas most animated fairy tales are content to follow a single quest beat by beat, Up provides two conflicting agendas and asks its hero (and, in the process, the viewer) to re-evaluate his priorities.
Carl’s other animal companion functions more as a comic relief character, albeit one with a surprising amount of pathos. Dug wears a collar that enables him to speak with humans, allowing for a number of gags relating to canine idiosyncrasies: “Squirrel!” However, his thought processes seem to extend beyond what the translation device can capture. Take, for example, how quickly he adopts our heroes as his new family despite never complaining about his former pack. Loneliness, the filmmakers seem to argue, cannot be verbalised. They explore the notion further in the DVD short Dug’s Special Mission (2009), which turns a tired cartoon trope on its head with a single, melancholic line at the end.
Up, though, largely focuses on the relationship between Carl and the aforementioned Wilderness Explorer scout, Russell, who’s suffering a loss of his own. Again, the character never openly expresses his longing, but we sense it from the desperate way he tries to please his father and then shoulders the responsibility of each failed effort: “Phyllis says I bug him too much”; “Phyllis isn’t my mom.” These two lines leave so much unsaid, yet convey more hurt in a throwaway instant than most family melodramas manage in an hour and a half. Incidentally, I like that the animators have given the boy Asian traits but that the screenplay never so much as refer to his race.
In a way, the greatest achievement of writer-directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson lies in their story not disappointing after such a powerful opening. Rather, they use this early momentum to, forgive the pun, lift us into an emotional journey filled with laughter, sadness, excitement, and hard lessons. In short, they transport us into the hero’s life. I cry at several parts every time I watch the movie, including the first time Carl and Ellie break their money jar, when he flips through her photo album and finds a parting message, and at the final shot revealing where their house landed. To call Up breathtaking would be an understatement. It’s a testament to existence.