Just being a Pixar film would be enough to get Up onto my watch list, but the accolades it’s received certainly didn’t hurt. Directed by Bob Peterson and Pete Docter, Up was the second animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, and the first to be nominated after the creation of the Best Animated Feature category (which it won).
Over the past few years, I’ve heard a lot about its opening sequence and how touching it is. It’s nothing less than the truth; the first fifteen minutes of this movie could comprise an award-winning short film all by themselves. Watching Carl and Ellie grow up together, fall in love, grow old, and eventually Carl being left alone is heartwarming and sad all at once, and provides an unusually serious and mature beginning to a generally light-hearted film.
Fortunately the rest of the film is rather more… uplifting.
Faced with being forced out of his home, the elderly Carl (voiced by professional curmudgeon Ed Asner) comes up with a plan to fulfill his and Ellie’s dream of visiting Paradise Falls in South America, and going on the adventure they had first met and bonded over while fantasizing as kids. He attaches thousands of helium balloons to his house and rigs up a rudder, and the house becomes airborne. Junior Wilderness Scout Russell (Jordan Nagai) is an accidental stowaway, and finds that his “Helping the Elderly” badge now involves helping an old man cross multiple countries instead of just the street.
A moving and heartwarming film could probably have been made just from the flight down to Venezuela, with the same themes of Carl learning to let go of his depression and learning to enjoy the friendship of his naive companion. Carl and Russell are contrasted in both age and cynicism, and their differences alone could easily support a film. But, perhaps realizing that the many children in the audience would lack the patience for a film without some action, the trip south is relatively quick. Carl gets his lifelong dream of an adventure when his arrival puts him at odds with a crazed big game hunter who is even more elderly than himself (Christopher Plummer).
The adventure section is sure to thrill any child and most adults. The difficulties faced by an old man in the jungle are downplayed a bit (both geriatrics are apparently in great physical shape for their age), but just enough is included to add a bit humor to the situation — humor which is also provided through Russell’s naivete and through the irony of Carl getting his adventure after all these years. It’s very much an homage to the old pulp adventure novels of the 1930s and 1940s, complete with exotic animals, death-defying thrills, and scientific implausibilities. The latter mainly comes into play through a dog named Dug, who has been equipped with a collar that allows him to converse in English (voiced by co-director Bob Peterson). The ability to grant human speech to a dog may seem unlikely, but most dog owners will agree that if their dog did start talking, the dialogue would probably be a lot like Dug’s.
Once again, a villain comes up with something that would grant them fame and fortune if only they weren’t obsessed with something else.
The film is breathtakingly beautiful, whether it’s showing the house soaring through the air, or the jungles of Venezuela. It’s bright and colorful during the modern day sequences — even with the construction being built around Carl’s house — and just a bit softer during the nostalgic opening sequence. Character designs are fantastic, with a lot of the characters’ basic natures being clear just from how they’re designed. Ellie, whether young or aged, looks inherently enthusiastic. Carl’s basic shape remains the same as he grows old, with his brow growing heavier to represent his change from a slightly serious but happy young man to an old crank. The villain is sharp and angular to reflect his threatening nature… though it’s perhaps ironic that he looks the most like a real person out of all of the characters. And naive and youthful Russell resembles nothing so much as an egg, waiting to develop into something more than just an inexperienced kid.
It’s difficult for a film — especially one that includes children as a large part of its audience — to succeed on multiple levels at once. To be a fun and funny adventure movie with a message about learning to let go of loss is a difficult balancing act. And perhaps it doesn’t succeed on blending the two 100% of the time; certainly the army of talking dogs seems just a little bit out of place for its silliness. But much like the balloons lift Carl’s house despite the foundations or conventional logic, Up rises above this minor separation of themes to provide a story that is by turns heartwarming and exciting and humorous.