I had to call dibs on Up the moment I knew we’d be covering 2009. After all, it’s my favorite movie of all time, or, more accurately, the movie I say is my favorite in any situation where saying it’s The Seventh Seal would make me look like an asshole. It can be intimidating to find something new to add to all the discussion on this movie, even if most of it’s ever-more-colorful descriptions of the tearjerking power of that opening montage. But it’s so rich that even this sequence has more to offer. For one thing, it doesn’t actually open the film. When we first see Carl Fredericksen, the ultimate Grumpy Old Man, he’s not an old man at all, but a little boy. He’s watching, wide-eyed, an old-timey newsreel, an entertaining way to introduce several plot points that will become important later on: Carl’s love of the explorer Charles Muntz, his canine servants, the mysteries of Paradise Falls, and Muntz’ disgrace and self-imposed exile. On his way home from the movies, he meets his future wife, Ellie, an almost superhuman bundle of life and energy voiced by and named after director Pete Docter’s daughter. Up is the most adult of Pixar’s films, but Docter never loses sight of his target audience. Kids may not be able to identify with Carl’s long adult life and adult struggles money, infertility, and mortality. So Docter introduces them to Carl and Ellie in a form they’ll recognize, with familiar desires for friendship and adventure. All this helps sweeten the pill; or maybe, makes it even more exquisitely painful to swallow.
Despite what many critics have said, the whirlwind tour of Carl and Ellie’s life together is not the movie’s only high point. But it’s easy to see how they’d come to that conclusion. In a genre full of bombast and blunt storytelling, it’s an absolutely brutal piece of narrative efficiency. Not only does it have to tell the story of an entire life in just a few minutes, Docter gives himself the extra challenge of doing it entirely without words. All we need to see to know Carl and Ellie dream of parenthood is the two of them excitedly seeing babies in the clouds and excitedly painting the nursery in bright, joyful colors. And all we need to see to know they can never realize their dream can never come true is a quick pan from there to a dark doctor’s office; we can even tell what kind of doctor he is by the pregnancy chart on the wall. Few movies have colors as beautiful as this one, and in other scenes, as in this one, they’re not just pretty: they do the work of the story. We know the opening of the montage is a wedding because the chapel is full of bright, rose light. And we know that same chapel is holding a funeral because all the color has left it. Michael Giacchino’s iconic score is equally important, twisting the same simple melody into a million different forms. Just by a slight change in instrumentation, he can make those same few notes indicate joy or misery, triumph or defeat, and all the bittersweet shading in between. This theme also plays along Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A.; I have to wonder if they’ve had issues with tourists breaking down sobbing in the middle of the road.
Even more challenging, it has to make Ellie a fully-realized enough character to drive the entire movie’s story from beyond the grave. Five minutes isn’t enough for a deep psychological profile, of course, but Up can make Ellie a powerful, archetypal force: life, energy, and of course, adventure. We learn everything we need to know about her from visual shorthand and contrast with Carl’s staid solidity. At their wedding, we see her side of the chapel full of happy, hollering rednecks while Carl’s is full of quiet, sourfaced WASPs. Carl is represented by angles lying flat along the horizontal, while she’s represented by curves reaching upward. This applies not just to the character designs but to the props attached to each of them as well: just look at the recurring image of their two chairs, a squat, boxy one next to an elegant, curving one embroidered with flowers, a plain, square lamp next to one and an ornate arts-and-crafts lamp next to the other. All this liveliness make her death seem like a sacrilege; it seems sadly fitting that Carl would give up on life itself afterwards. That sense of wrongness is heartbreakingly underlined in the contrast between an earlier scene of her running up a hill while Carl lags behind and a later one where she collapses halfway up.
If the montage is a simplified version of a realistic story, what follows is closer to the realm of fairy tales and fables. A bouquet of balloons floating a house across the world is, of course, an iconic image, and was even before Up came out: childlike, iconic, and physically impossible. But, despite its adult themes, the film doesn’t run on adult logic. Up raises all kinds of logical questions: how do the characters stay on the surface of the blimp in the climactic fight? How can an old man trek across the jungle and perform other feats of strength like catching a child falling at terminal velocity one-handed? How can dogs cook with their paws? What exactly is Carl planning to do with Russell once he reaches the Falls? The answer to all of these, of course, is “It doesn’t matter.” This isn’t that kind of story. Most of these questions didn’t even occur to me until my most recent viewing, which must be something like my fifth or sixth. (The only one that sticks in my craw is how Charles Muntz can apparently be the same age as someone who was a child when he was already years into his adult career; there’s rumors that an earlier draft would have explained he found the Fountain of Youth among the wonders of Paradise Falls.) Even the main thrust of the plot follows no conventional logic: what is Carl hoping to accomplish by going to Paradise Falls? How can a promise he made as a child drive him to such single-minded, superhuman perseverance? But Up taps so strongly into the deeper, ritualistic logic of Carl’s desires so strongly that none of that makes any difference. The transcendent wonder of scenes like the house’s liftoff, Giacchino’s magical woodwind score and the stained-glass dance of light through the balloons forcibly rewires cynical adult brains into a place where they can accept the film’s child-logic.
It’s fitting that a movie that taps into a child’s mindest so well would have such a perfectly realized child character as Russell. Jordan Nagai isn’t a polished, Disney-channel child actor; in fact, he’s often downright wooden. But that’s a feature, not a bug, and it perfectly captures the cadence of a child Russell’s age whose mouth often has to slow down so the developing brain can catch up. Some of the credit for that lifelike cadence goes to the screenplay too; for instance, he models the perfect responses to the illogical logic of Carl’s flying house when he remarks, “You know, most people take a plane, but you’re smart because you’ll have all your TV and clocks and stuff.” Most screenwriters would insist on listing the objects that make the most sense to an adult mind, but the Up crew know a real Russell would think of one logical option, one that happens to cross his mind, and just give up before he could come up with a third. There’s a simple fairy-tale logic to his relationship with Carl: a child without a father meets a father without a child. With a design combining Ellie’s curves and Carl’s squatness, he could even be the son they never had. And their goal to reunite Kevin the multicolored megabird with her own family further develops and deepens the themes of parenthood.
If Up understands human nature, it understands canine nature even better. When I first saw it, I thought it was downright eerie how much Dug resembled my own dog, Pogo. Coming back to it now, I’m convinced millions of other dog owners had the same reaction. Talking dogs in animation are nothing new, of course, but the science-fiction concept of the translator collar allows the animators to create the most believable dogs we’ve ever seen in the medium. Dug’s voice is the only anthropomorphized thing about him: even while he’s speaking, he still pants and wanders like a real dog. While the translators play back human laughter, the dogs in his pack wag their tails and waddle; while Alpha’s translator chews Dug out, we can see the growls it’s apparently translating. When Carl calls Dug a bad dog, his cringe will be familiar to anyone who’s said the same to their own dog. Whenever we start to think these dogs might be cartoonishly humanized, they remind us they’re still dogs. They may serve hot dogs and pour drinks, but they’ll still snatch them off your plate and lap it out of your glass when you’re not looking. And if translators actually existed, they probably really would sound a lot like these ones do: there’s some clever touches of Google-Translate stiltedness like “I will have many enjoyments for what I’m about to do” and “Do you not agree with that which I am saying to you now?” And if dogs could talk, I’m sure we all agree they’d say things like, “I have just met you and I love you,” or, more guardedly, “I like you temporarily!”
It seems like every generation of kids’ entertainment is noisier, busier, and more obnoxious than the last. Up is a welcome throwback as far as that goes; indeed, it shows a patience with and respect for intelligence of its audience that few kiddie flicks of any generation have. The Pixar crew is fond of quoting Billy Wilder’s advice to “Give the audience two and two and let them make four,” and that gives a wonderful subtlety to a lot of their storytelling. While we’re still recovering from the montage, there’s a subtler but equally sad moment when a construction truck nearly destroys Carl’s (i.e., Ellie’s) mailbox. He tries to run and save it, but a few small touches in the animation show his tragic, elderly frailty. The developers take him to court after he hits one of the builders with his walker (and, in a shocking bit of realism that efficiently communicates the seriousness of the situation, we actually see him bleed). The crew recognize this whole subplot is just a stop they have to take on the way to the good stuff, so they give us two and two (Carl sitting, shellshocked, on a bench in the courthouse, a paper labeled “Summons” in his hand) and lets us make four, getting though the whole thing in under a minute. Similarly, Carl and Dug trekking through the vents in The Spirit of Adventure could have been a drawn-out action setpiece, but all we really need is one shot of Dug pointing at one grate (“Point!”) and one shot of the two of them coming out another. Like a previous Year of the Month subject, they also recognize the paradoxical truth that slapstick can often be funnier when we have to fill in the punchline. For instance, when Russell tries to set up the tent, he’s offscreen when we hear a “smack!” He comes back into frame to let Carl knows he’s done, and then turns around so we can see the welt he got on the other side of his face. Up finds the comedy in subtle gestures (or at least, subtle by the lax standards of cartoondom), like Russell being dragged on his face, flipping himself over to show off the merit badge that proves him an authority on whether there are tigers in South America, and immediately flopping down again.
Up’s love of subtle pleasures doesn’t mean it’s short on simpler, more obvious ones, either, though. While its reputation mostly rests on its tragedy, it’s one of the most complete movies ever made. Up hits every possible emotion and combining the joys of every genre: tragedy, comedy, romance, adventure, fantasy, white-knuckle thrills, and it hits each of those notes better than most movies that dedicate themselves to any one of them. If you ever wonder how on earth a children’s movie about a grieving old man longing for death starring an actor best known for a show that went off the air decades ago, there’s your answer. There’s the kind of slapstick you can only get in animation, like Russell, Dug, and Kevin wrestling, freezing, and then standing at attention at superhuman speed. And fitting its pulp-adventure roots, Up is full of thrilling action setpieces too. Unlike nearly all kids’ movies, and most for adults, the characters’ peril feels real and life-threatening, even after watching them make it out alive so many times. Andrew Stanton said on the commentary for his movie Finding Nemo that Pixar originally avoided moving their simulated “camera” in ways a real one couldn’t, but that as live-action filmmakers began using computer-generated “cameras,” they were able to be more adventurous. And it’s a good thing Hollywood finally caught up with them, because there’s multiple jaw-dropping scenes of the “camera” swinging wildly as it follows Russell flailing from the hose that ties him to the house, which were even more incredible seeing Up in 3-D when it first came out.
Even with all these thrills, the quiet charms of Up are still the biggest special effect of all compared to the bombast of its competition, both from kiddie animation and the blockbuster spectacles aimed at older audiences (including some that were favored the Oscar that year, ahem, ahem). The final shot, a slow, silent pan through the mists of Paradise Falls revealing the house finally landed where Carl and Ellie had always dreamed, accompanied only by a lone piano and a few subtle strings, seems more at home than a multimillion-dollar crowdpleaser about talking dogs and flying houses. And yet it not only works. It works transcendently.