An Elevating Contest: Looking Closer Readers Review “Up”

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Okay, I’m going to pick the poster-winner  on Wednesday. But these are the three considerations of Up that came in. I present them warts and all!I’d love to hear from readers about which reviewer has earned the Up poster. If you pick a favorite,  please say why. (Note what you like about your favorite, not what you dislike about the others, please. This wasn’t meant as an invitation to critique.)

EXHIBIT A:

Up: A Film That’s Truly for All Ages

A lot of movies advertise themselves as “fun for the whole family,” or they say that children and adults will both find something to like in it. Usually, this means the movie features a bunch of cute animals (or ogres or whatever) for the kiddies to “Ooh” and “Aww” at, with a few popular culture references thrown in for mom and dad. For example, think of every joke in every Shrek movie.

My problem with this approach is that it doesn’t really satisfy anyone. The pop culture jokes go right over the kids’ heads, and the cute animals are too simple and predictable to involve the parents. No one is really sure if senior citizens like these movies, but as they in marketing stereotypes, “It’s a market we can do without.” The result is a movie-watching experience in which everyone in the family might appreciate different facets of the movie, but those are unlikely to overlap. It’s almost as if no one watched the same movie. What should be a unifying experience becomes a separate one. One of the reasons movies are made with this cut-and-paste, cram-it-in approach is that it’s easy. It is much easier to slap together ready-made plot points and stock characters than it is to create an organic, involving story that everyone can enjoy together.

Thank God that Pixar does it the hard way.

Two of Pixar’s best movies, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, both feature characters of varied ages who learn to work together and relate to one another. In most other movies, Dash and Violet Parr would have had to work together to rescue their bumbling, ironically “incredible” parents. In Brad Bird’s film, however, Mr. and Mrs. Incredible are helped by their children, but the parents help the children just as much; they have to rely on one another–to become a family, in other words–to defeat Syndrome. In Finding Nemo, Marlin is an overprotective father; he loves Nemo, but he is afraid of losing him as he grows up. And Nemo loves his father, but he also feels the need to grow up and go on adventures. Instead of showing the brave son striking out on his own, though, Finding Nemo turns the conventional story upside down by sending the father on the adventure. After they finally find one another again, they have both learned how much they need each other, and that they can have their next adventures together.

Up continues this pattern of reconciliation and growing together, but it begins with an audacious gamble: The protagonist is a crotchety old man named Carl Frederickson, and in a choice even more daring than the dialogue-free opening act of WALL-E, it shows the entire arc of Carl’s life with his wife Ellie in a few silent minutes. This montage is wonderfully free of excitement and spectacle. With humor and heartbreak, it simply shows us who these people were and are. I imagine that younger children will see their grandparents on the screen, middle-agers will see their parents, and older people will see themselves. That is, they will see the montage differently, but in a way that invites discussion and stories.

Carl’s lonely life is interrupted by Russell (first-time voice actor Jordan Nagai), an awkward boy intent on earning his Helping the Elderly merit badge. Carl has no interest in letting Russell or anyone else help him, because from his perspective, his life ended when his wife died. The only thing that rouses Carl from his torpor is the possibility of a final adventure to Paradise Falls, the mythical land to which his boyhood hero Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), introduced in a news-reel flashback, disappeared years ago. Carl cannot make the journey with Ellie, of course, so he brings a metaphor instead: His house. It is his last link to his wife, and has in many ways become a stand-in for her in his life.

The joyous surprise of the house borne aloft on a cluster of balloons has probably been spoiled for you by Up’s trailers, but seeing it on a TV or computer is nothing compared to seeing it on the movie screen. It reminded me of the ending of Albert Lamorisse’s classic fable The Red Balloon, when the red balloon flies away surrounded by all his balloon friends, except that in Up, I got to go along for the ride.

It’s at this point that Up shifts gears and becomes something I did not expect: An exhilarating adventure complete with talking animal sidekicks and a monomaniacal villain. It’s a testament to the genius of screenwriter Bob Peterson (Finding Nemo) that I did not immediately hate Dug, the talking dog for whom Peterson also provides the voice.

In her review for The New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote that this is when “the story grows progressively more formulaic.” I understand her criticism to a point–it’s not hard to guess where the story is going to go–but her real complaint seems to be that Up has a plot. I got the impression Dargis wanted the movie to remain rooted to the ground, with Carl just waiting for his life to finally end, like a character in a Beckett play.

The narrative power of Up goes far beyond simply what happens in the story, however. In addition to the geriatric swordplay and running “Squirrel!” jokes, the final act of Up is a powerful emotional illustration of what it means to really live: To grow up and move on and keep going, whether you’re 8 or 78 or anywhere in between. The scene when Carl has to decide between holding on to his past or pursuing his future is the closest I have come to crying at a movie in years.

As in other Pixar movies, Up shows the value of community; Carl and Russell need one another, and to realize that, they needed to go on this journey together. Where Finding Nemo primarily showed the joys of adventure, though, Up goes a step further, suggesting that it is the small, everyday, “boring” moments of life that end up meaning more than the big, dramatic events.

I suspect that by the end of Up, everyone in the theater–young, old, and everyone in between–will want to go out for ice cream and eat it on the curb with their families. I know I did.

EXHIBIT B:

Up

(Note: I’ve tried to keep spoilers to a minimal, but they are there.)

Up, like The Incredibles before it, starts with a fake news reel. This time the reel is about an adventurer who returns from Peru with the skeleton of a fantastic creature only to have it discredited by the scientific community, and promptly vows to return to Peru and bring back a live version of the creature as proof that he’s no liar. All of this is watched by a young Carl Fredricksen, a shy boy who is nevertheless adventurous at heart. The following minutes (I have no idea how many of them, time is unimportant when you’re enchanted) follows Fredricksen through adolescence, manhood, and, finally, old age. Up is less ambitious than its immediate predecessor, Wall-E, but the sincerity and sadness in which Fredricksen’s story is told is striking for an animated film . . . even a Pixar film.

At the end of the montage a lady behind me sobbed softly and whispered “That’s so sad,” and there’s no shame in telling you that tears filled my eyes, as well. What feels almost wrong, however, is the way director Pete Docter (of Monsters Inc. previously) and the animators at Pixar immediately follow up that solemn, realistic opening. Like most animated films, Up has little caveat with following a heartbreaking scene with comic relief. Which begs the question, with their opening sequence has Pixar simply followed most animated film’s formulaic, cheap, degrading practice of tacking on predictably sentimental back stories to their characters before moving on to the stuff that really sells? Or, perhaps, is the way they handle Carl’s story as much a sign of an optimistic, ‘look forward’ approach to life and storytelling as much as it is a bow to the necessity of quickly transitioning from a pained backstory to the film’s rising action.

One thing that bothered me acutely when I first saw Wall E but didn’t bother me the second time was how the humans on their ‘cruise’ react (or rather, don’t react) when they find out they’re heading back to earth – there was no resistance, no ‘we want to stay here watching our TV’s and drinking our slurpees.’ Rather, they embraced the move. The first time I saw the film, it felt wrong – a product of the necessities of the script rather than an even semi-realistic estimation of how actual human beings would respond.

I wasn’t bothered the second time, not because I don’t think the way Wall-E depicts human nature is an over-simplification, but because as a whole Wall E is an excellent, moving, insightful film. It’s also an optimistic one. Yes, humans turned the earth into a trash heap and headed for the stars (for the story of those who got left behind see: Blade Runner) but hope remained. It took time but, after a while, life became possible again. Evangelical Christianity comes out of a traditions that firmly believes and preaches man’s innate sinfulness. Evangelical Christianity rejects humanistic philosophies of man’s innate goodness. Neither of those ideas works by themselves however, their has to be a balance.

Man isn’t innately good – in fact, for the most part, man is innately selfish. And, contrary to the ideas of Adam Smith, having a bunch of people acting in their own self interest isn’t in the best interest of every other way. But man is not irrevocably sinful either. A big part of the hope of the gospel is that we’ve been freed from the law of sin and death. Pixar (especially as a film studio that makes animated films and what not) leans on the side of (let’s not say man’s innate goodness) optimism rather than pessimism. And perhaps the way the studio tells its story following tragedy is telling – they don’t wallow in it, they move on . . . and up. But that’s only the first third of the film, the rest awaits . . .

EXHIBIT C:

Up

There ought to be two standards of greatness for films: Regular great and Pixar great. I mean, that’s the only way to make things fair. I cannot think of a production company on a bigger roll than the folk at Pixar. Toy Story (I&II), Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Wall*E, Ratatouille, Monsters Inc., Cars, A Bugs Life… that is a fine display of quality film making.

All of this leads us to their latest offering, Up. In a word, genius. Really, this movie is about as good as movies get. Touching, sweet, funny, and with something on its mind that ought to lead to some nice conversations between parents and children of any age.

“A pleasure is only full grown when it is remembered.”– C.S. Lewis

That quote from Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet popped into my mind as the credits rolled at the end. And, of course, to remember something, you’ve got to let the experience go, to surrender it to time, to memory. That’s really what Up is all about.

It’s the story of an elderly man, Carl, who is driven to act (in the most extreme, imaginative way I can remember on screen) because he is desperately holding on to the memory of his beloved wife, Ellie. You can’t blame him for it. As we see in a beautifully framed montage of their lives together, Ellie was quite a woman. Full of passion and an adventurous spirit, she elevated Carl’s life in the same way those helium balloons he’s made a career selling lifted his sales cart. But she dies, never having visited Paradise Falls, their dream adventure-vacation set somewhere in South America.

Carl is left alone, in their wonderful dream house, which he has maintained as a monument to Ellie, still speaking to her as if she were standing next him. The house, you might say, is used as a metaphor for Ellie herself; their life together at this point in the film, but you will notice how artfully the house is used as a symbol throughout. Greedy developers have beset Carl at all sides and are just waiting to take his property for the creation of some mega-something. After an accidental beating at Carl’s hands, the retirement home seems destined to be Carl’s future.

Not content to go quietly in that good night, Carl makes a choice that sets the movie in motion and takes the audience on a wonderful ride. I know, this doesn’t sound particularly funny to you right now, but trust me, the funny comes. Along the way, we meet a young stowaway, Russell, the Wilderness Scout, and a talking dog named Dug. Actually, we meet lots of talking dogs–I mean, lots of them. And believe me when I tell you that they nearly steal the show with their zaniness. Oh, we also meet a giant bird, Kevin, who is not quite what “he” seems. These unwelcome additions to Carl’s journey provide the laughs and, ultimately, allow Carl to grow beyond the crank he’s become in his old age.

I refuse to give away plot points, so let me just say that Up is fantastic. Whimsical, funny, exhilarating at times, and with a profound message. From a technical standpoint, also superb. Not a thing wasted on screen–not even squirrel jokes. The colors are vibrant, the animation as good as any Pixar has created (though perhaps not as amazing as the detail on Ratatouille), and the script tight and well written.

You may have noticed, if you pay attention to such things, that Up is rated PG rather than G as are most Pixar films. Parents, no need for alarm here. The heroic quartet finds itself in peril at some points along the way and younger children may find some of it a bit menacing. (My own little girls were concerned, but not terrified.) Adventures wouldn’t be without some danger, right?

Please, do yourself a favor and go see Up. Make it a family date, enjoy it on screen, then take C.S. Lewis’ advice and fully enjoy it over some ice cream or coffee afterward. You will be richer for it.

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  • http://bodycreativenetwork.com Dave Von Bieker

    Some great reviews here. REALLY makes me want to rush out and see Up again. It is such a magical piece of art.

    Here’s my own funny/embarrassing story about Up. I was so touched by it, that as I related the story of Carl and Ellie’s unfulfilled dreams to my wife at our kitchen table, I choked up, and we actually both shed a tear. All without her ever seeing a moment of if. Now that’s a powerful story!

    I think I love UP so much because it is a fully rounded joy. If feels like a good hard laugh – and not a sarcastic one. It feels like breathing deeply and filling your lungs with sweet summer air. It is so full of life. Perhaps “life to the full” as Christ points us towards in John 10:10? I don’t know, there’s something about the combination of whimsy and sadness, real blood and a floating house, tears and laughter, withholding (we never find out anything about Russell’s family) and revealing, reality and metaphor, that makes this movie seem like a slice of good, hearty life.

    And that CS Lewis quote certainly does fit here, Adolfo.

  • D.Costales

    I am voting for B. It had the best explanation of concepts as well as feeling genuine. I also loved the comparison to the worlds that pixar has created.

  • Adolfo Rodriguez

    I vote for C…because I wrote it and I really want the poster. :)

  • E. Jones

    I vote for A. It captures the essence of what makes UP so special.

  • Glenn

    Jeff,
    Going to see Up this Saturday – finally. Can you extend the contest? I WANT THAT POSTER!!!!!


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