Wed
Jun 20 2012 12:00pm

Finding What Was Lost: Up

Pixar movies are generally an easy sell for me. They push all the right buttons. Monsters? They’ve got them. Superheroes? That, too. Science fictional robots? Yup. But it wasn’t until they got to zeppelins that I truly fell in love. It turns out, though, that it’s not because of the zeppelins. It turns out that there’s a lot more to Up than that.

So much of what I love about Up is how it tells its story. I feel that Pixar really made a leap after Wall-E in the way that they use the medium to tell stories, and that new understanding is all over Up. In fiction, we often hear the old adage, “show, don’t tell” and Up does just that. Sometimes it gives us all the information we need in just an image. Or an expression. Or simply in the intensity of the colors on the screen.

Before I get to that, I need to recognize the heroes of the story. Up is unconventional in that Carl, one of our heroes, is an elderly man. Russell, his young Wilderness Explorer companion is Asian. And while Carl’s age is, importantly, part of the story, Russell’s ethnicity isn’t. Which makes sense. Up is about life’s choices and Carl’s age relates to this. Russell’s ethnicity doesn’t. The two of them feel like real people, and they’re characters the audience can believe in, sympathize with and, ultimately, love.

It’s true, there aren’t many women here. For much of the movie, the only female character is a multicolored bird named Kevin. But Up begins with a love story, and while Ellie is dead for most of the film, she’s still a presence, floating over the film, as bright as the balloons that lift Carl’s house. And whether it’s in the picture of her hanging on the wall of the house, or in the way that Carl talks to her, or crosses his heart, or misses her, she’s there.

And that’s one of the brilliant things about this movie. It’s a love story, and it’s a story about coping with loss, and it handles the subject mattter so well. To tell the story of Carl and Ellie’s relationship, Up gives us a montage, moments of their lives over a musical score, and it’s utterly brilliant. Just like Wall-E, where they gave us emotion in a robot who doesn’t speak, they convey so much in Up with just images and music. We understand Carl and Ellie’s love, we understand the distractions of everyday life that draw them away from being the explorers of their youth, we understand the tragedy of Ellie’s illness, and we understand, in the later scenes in the montage, exactly what Carl has lost. It’s a journey, completely encapsulated in minutes, and on its own its like a complete short film. But this is just the beginning, because this is a movie, in a large part, about coming to terms with loss. Of letting go of what doesn’t matter, and remembering what does. And it’s about two people from very disparate backgrounds meeting and helping one another understand that.

When the house is flying into a storm, and Carl’s treasured objects and—by association—his memories, are in jeopardy, we feel each and every threat because the film has already made their value clear. We don’t want the jug of coins to shatter. We don’t want to see Ellie’s picture, or her chair be damaged. We understand what they mean to Carl. Then, later, when Carl gives them up, tosses them out of the house to go after Russell, we understand the significance of that as well. That Carl has had his realization that possessions are not important. It’s the memories, and what they mean, that are truly important.

 And yet also, talking dogs! And Dug in particular. There’s something so very doglike and lovable about that character. From the moment he appeared, I was on his side, a literal underdog, and yet only because he’s so very earnest and free of guile or deceit.

And a Zeppelin! I love that the film pivots on this pulp idea of the explorer, and the search, in some Savage Land-like part of South America, for exotic megafauna. But like much of that early pulp spirit, it turns out to be about controlling and dominating and conquering. Not about understanding. And while young Carl may have once appreciated that spirit, he now realizes that it’s not the way to do things. That his concept of what adventure is has changed.

And Muntz (voiced wonderfully by Christopher Plummer) is like a twisted, extreme version of how Carl could have gone, obsessed with, and chasing something that always eludes him. Carl’s realization, of what his real adventure was, allows him to step away (or perhaps fly away) from that path and back to what really matters. With Ellie as his guide as always.

But did I mention the Zeppelin? And dogs who fly planes. And exotic megafauna. And, of course, humor. Up is poignant and touching and incredibly funny. From Dug’s painfully earnest utterings to Alpha’s glitchy voice unit to the dog waiters who end up stealing Russell’s hot dog, the film is just full of wonderfully comic moments punctuating the drama. Squirrel!

It comes back to people, and the idea of forming new relationships when old ones have failed. Carl has lost Ellie, but learns to care about Russell and Dug. Russell has lost his father, but gains Carl, who is there at the end to share ice cream with him and count colored cars. Up tells us that in the face of loss, there’s still hope. Even after losing a loved one, there are still others to love. When the world tells you that your place has passed and it’s time to move on, sometimes there’s something even better waiting for you. And in a film about flying, it’s not always about the destination, but the journey.

Up is ultimately about people finding things that they thought were lost to them—adventure, dreams, relationships—and often in the most unlikely places. It’s a film that begins and ends with the idea of exploration, though what that means changes drastically over the course of the movie. Sometimes the biggest and most important discovery is the one you find inside yourself.

Let me know what you thought of the movie in the comments. Up is my favorite Pixar movie, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Rajan Khanna is a writer, narrator, and blogger in addition to being a dirigible enthusiast. He gets very excited over zeppelins and other airships, even if those included houses held up by helium balloons. His website is www.rajankhanna.com and he tweets @rajanyk.

29 comments
Syllabus
1. Syllabus
Put him in the cone of shame!
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
2. Lisamarie
I only really skimmed this review because I haven't seen the movie yet - I have seen the opening montage and it is beautiful and bittersweet.

I also have been going through my own cycle of purging and realizing that 'stuff' - even sentimental items - are no timportant, it's the memories that are important. I'm at a stage where I find things like journals and photo albums much more valuable than knicknacks or old gifts I've hung on to. Yes, there are some things I still treasure and hold on to, but for the most part I've been cleansing my house of things I haven't wanted to get rid of (but deep down HAVE wanted to get rid of because I'm moving to a very anti-clutter stage in my life) because so-and-so gave it to me, or we got it on a certain vacation, or it represents a certain part of my childhood, or whatever.

This is going to be very superficial of me, but one of the reasons I actually didn't go out of my way to see the movie is because the characters seem very unattractively drawn to me - the aesthetic just doesn't appeal to me; the overly boxy/round heads just seemed overly cartoonish (yes, it's a cartoon, I know) and just...not my style. But I do plan on cashing in my Amazon points soon and rounding out my Pixar collection.

I am just curious - in the montage, do people generally interpret Ellie's medical appointment as having had a miscarriage or being diagnosed with infertility? I've seen a lot of people say she was diagnosed with infertility, but to me (at least, as a child-bearing woman who is a little preoccupied with the notion) it really screamed 'miscarriage' (and possibly also being told that she wouldn't be able to carry any future echildren to term). The 'look' she gave him while cloud-gazing really seemed to me a 'I have a secret' look (that she was pregnant) and usually people don't start decorating a room until they've conceived. Plus, the flat out dead look she had on her face while sitting outside really seemed to speak to me of somebody grieving the loss of a child. But I do have some friends who struggle with infertility and they have grieved just as much so I could be projecting my own fears onto it.

I'm just wondering how others interpreted that (or if the creators have stated one way or the other), and I'm sorry for dwelling on such a morbid topic, but as it's the only part I've seen so far it's all I can really talk about. At any rate, I'm quite impressed they dealt with that topic and how heartbreaking it is (either miscarriage or infertility) since it is usally pretty much swept under the rug and sometimes well-meaning or insensitive people tell women they should just 'get over it' when things like that happen, since it wasn't a 'real' baby (or try to extol the virtues of a child-free life to somebody struggling with infertility which is equally as hurtful).
Chris Hawks
3. SaltManZ
Goldangit, I cry just reading about this movie.
Steven Halter
4. stevenhalter
Salt@3:Ditto. It really is a lovely movie. It tells a complete story in a beautiful fashion and it has

Squirrel!
Syllabus
5. sjwood
As much as that opening scene floored me, I gotta say that UP is one of my least favourite Pixar movies. I won't deny that it's still a good movie by normal standards, but I just don't think it messures up.
The thing that lets it down the most, as far as I'm concerned, is the simplistic story telling. The set up is great and the reason for the adventure is fantastic - so are the main characters - but when it comes to Carl figuring out what's important, it's done in the most standardized way. Gets angry with kid for putting his crap at risk, shouts at kid, kid runs and he has to go rescue kid. I don't know - I just expect more from Pixar. Then the villain is also simply a frothing at the mouth bad guy (Though I do appreciate your obsevation that it could have been Carl had he taken another path).
Then the thing that annoyes me the most are the dogs. Don't get me wrong, I love Dug, but it's the overload of having all those other talking dogs that brings things down for me. Especially when the leader is a Doberman Pincher that has *pauses for comedic effect* a squeeky voice. Man, that is just sooooo broad I can barely stand it. And just when I think I can let it go - the dogs are flying around in their own little fighter planes with dog biscuit shaped controls. It all ends up being too much for me.
Though, having said all that, when Carl opens his wifes adventure book and sees how full of adventure she truly believed her life was, it reduces me to a puddle - so with that and the begining I still feel like I should give it another go round.
Charles Gaston
6. parrothead
@3, 4: Yeah, me too. That first ten minutes is just...wow.

I am so torn on whether Up or Wall-E is better. I think they're both brilliant. I didn't see either one until a few years later, and initially was (irrationally, I know) a bit miffed that Up was nominated for Best Picture, since the only previous animated film to gain that distinction is my #3 all time favorite Beauty & The Beast. When I finally got to watch them, though, I was just amazed. I wonder if Up owes anything to Miyazaki films like Porco Rosso or Castle In the Sky with their mild steampunk dedicated to flight.
Pamela Adams
7. Pam Adams
LisaMarie@2,

I definitely read the doctor scene as miscarriage.

I loved that Russell's ethnicity wasn't important, but his father wasn't 'lost,' but divorced from the mother. I dislike the idea of divorce =abndonment, and was really annoyed that the script called for that. Certainly my father stayed involved and would have come to my Scouting awards ceremony.
Stephanie Treanor
8. Streanor
Please, when Carl opened up their book and Ellie wrote inside that their life together was her great adventure.. i get choked up even writing that sentence! WOW this movie was an emotional adventure for sure!!
Syllabus
9. Tesh
@7
Your father might have stayed involved, but mine was pretty much gone after the divorce. It doesn't always work out.

I love UP. It might be simple and silly sometimes, but it has heart in all the right moments, and that's enough for me.
Syllabus
10. Gardner Dozois
The montage in the opening scene came closer to making me cry than anything I've seen in a theater in years, if not ever. I'm okay with the rest of the movie, but that opening is fantastic. And yes, I'd rate UP ahead of WALL-E, which I wasn't as bowled over by as most others were. On overall value, I'd also rate THE INCREDIBLES and the original TOY STORY above both of them...but oh, that opening montage!

The really amazing thing about UP is how, after the opening has everybody sobbing in their seats, they can then actually manage to go on from there and get people to laugh.
JS Bangs
11. jaspax
Russell is Asian?!

Anyway, I have to say that Up is one of my less favorite Pixar films. The opening montage made me cry (just like everybody else), but I find the rest of the film to be very uneven. The best Pixar films make the elements for adults and the elements for children work together seamlessly, so that the very same scene can appeal to all ages in very different ways. In Up, by contrast, it feels like we have an adult film about loss and love competing for screen time with a kid's film about talking dogs and zeppellins, and the two stories interact awkwardly. It's still a fine movie, but I don't think that it's one of Pixar's best.
Syllabus
12. Gardner Dozois
I probably shouldn't admit it, but I too didn't realize that Russell was Asian until the very end of the film. He just looked like a fat little kid to me.
Lauren W
13. laurene135
@7. Pam Adams

I agree with Tesh. I'm very happy that your father stuck around, it's a truly wonderful thing, but often times that is not the case. I had a very similar experience after my parents' divorce of suddenly becoming insignificant. Russell's dad not spending much time with him after the divorce felt very real to me. But mostly I loved how Pixar showed that just because your "dad" leaves doesn't mean there aren't other father figures out there who will love you and cherish you.

I thought it was perfect that the man who could never have a child was matched with the child who 'lost' his father.

UP to me was surprisingly bold on their subject matter, but I was pleased on how they handled it. They gave a clear and proper message on how we have losses and need to move on despite them, and more than that use that loss to make ourselves better people. Because of Carl's loss he was able to empathize with Russell better and move past his old man crankiness to be there for Russell.

EDIT: Yeah, I too totally thought Russell was just a chubby kid and didn't realize he was asian.

Oh and the message from Ellie on how she viewed her life as a fantastic adventure was perfect (and tear-jerky). I thought it was a great message to people young and old. A simple life can be a wonderful adventure if you let it.
lake sidey
14. lakesidey
I too rate the Incredibles as my favourite Pixar movie, for being consistently enjoyable throughout. But that is largely because with Up (and Wall-E) the first bit of the movie was too awesome - (strange, in that most movies reserve their best for the climax). After that 10 minutes, nothing else was really going to be able to measure up and the rest of the movie almost certainly would be a slight disappointment...

And yes, I cried too.
Syllabus
15. dav
Agree that the storytelling is simple, but disagree that it's uneven. Up shows that truly simple storytelling can be amazing if constructed and handled well. Even though it's simple I think it's perfect and it's my favorite Pixar movie.

Before Up I did used to "rate" all of the Pixar movies on some sort of moving scale (Incredibles slots in right here ahead of Bug's Life, but behind Toy Story 2), but this changed how I feel about all of their movies. They all have something that I'm drawn to (even Cars... not so much Cars 2). They all (again, mostly) affect me in an emotional way. I prefer some to others, but anymore I don't know what is truly "better" or "worse" than all the others. This studio is making movies that no one else is making. I still can't believe that an animated movie about a squat little octogenarian made affected me in such a profound way (during the montage and right before the climax). I can't remember a live action movie that has done that in years.

So, no more rankings from me. I have my favorites because of the moments (the Up montage, Ego's realization, Marlin and Dory, the plane rescue, the trash compactor, Spacey and Richard Kind hamming it up, rebuilding Wall-E), but I'm done comparing these movies because all they can really be compared with is each other and that's not really fair.
Syllabus
16. Stefan Jones
I didn't realize Russel was Asian until the film showed us his mom.

My two nieces, adopted from China, loved the fact that he's Asian.

Hmmm, Up.

I liked it in the theater. Came out with a big smile. At the time I thought it was a good second-rank Pixar film. (Extra points for Dug. I have a dog whose attitude toward squirrels is like Dug's; she tries to climb trees to get them, an impressive feat for a 80 lb. shepherd.) You know, for the kids.

I watched Up again, via Blu-Ray, last Christmas season, with one sister for whom it was the second Pixar film she'd ever seen, and with my other sister's family.

It was a different sort of experience, and I was much more impressed with the film. Specifically, I caught more of Carl's passage from sour recluse to anguished obsessive to substitute grand-dad. This made the film seem more balanced. It always seemed to have its share of kid-friendly slapstick, but seeing Carl's development meant the movie had "bones"; the introductory sequence wasn't just there for make us sob. It isn't obvious, with all the running about and him being a quiet sort of guy, but Up is primarily Carl's story.

"There's a gray one!"
Syllabus
17. Earl Rogers
Pam, my own father divorced my mother during my early teens. While we have a good relationship now, it was some years before he worked through his own private difficulties and was able to fully invest himself in his children again.

So I appreciated the admission that yes, some kids do end up feeling lost and alone.

Some.

I don't get from the film that because Russell's dad is currently not close with him that all divorced fathers are innately that way. Anymore than I think it's saying all 90 year old reculses are twisted super-villains.
Scott Silver
18. hihosilver28
@2. Lisamarie- Regarding Ellie at the doctor, I assumed that it was more than just a miscarriage simply because Carl and Ellie abandon having kids at that point in time. If it was just a miscarriage (hated typing that out, a miscarriage is in NO WAY a "just" kind of a thing to go through), then they still should be able to try for children later. Maybe both? A miscarriage then a Doctor explaining she was incapable of carrying to term. Or the room decorating was a wordless way for the filmmakers to show Ellie & Carl getting excited for kids.

I wholeheartedly love this film. I know people had problems with the dogs, and some of the whimsy in the movie, but I love it for the whimsy. "Talking" dogs, dirigibles, unknown birds; absolutely delighted me.

@6. Parrothead- I enjoy Beauty and the Beast, but I have some issues with the film and enjoy Up more. Have you ever seen the 1946 version by Jean Cocteau? I thought that was an incredibly gorgeous film.
Ashe Armstrong
19. AsheSaoirse
Like most people, I too teared up, lip all a quiver, at the opening sequence. Just...maaaaaan... Such a great story, great movie. And Dug's joke. "It's funny because the squirrel is dead." I can't really add anything else.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
20. Lisamarie
@18 hihosilver28 - sometimes miscarriages do reveal problems that indicate that the person can't/shouldn't get pregnant again (especially given the time this was supposed to be happening - we can do a lot more with high risk pregnancies than we could then), or the cause was something that would be recurrent (uterine/cervical abnormalities)...I definitely got the impression that they couldn't have more children, but it seemed to me that they had lost at least one.
Scott Silver
21. hihosilver28
@20 Lisamarie- Either way, it was something heartbreaking that never in a million years would have expected in a family movie. That is why I love Pixar, they take extreme chances in storytelling...and it pays off. They also handled it incredibly tactfully, and that is a subject that rarely is. It's usually too far on either extreme of exploitation or just brushing it off.

Also, you really should watch the entire movie. I understand that some of the character designs can be off-putting in the trailer, but trust me when I say that it works really well and disappears in the movie.
Syllabus
22. politeruin
Really can't add much more when others put it better than i can but i do love up, though it took a second viewing to make me truly appreciate what sublime storytelling it has, whereas initially i felt i got more out of wall-e i do prefer this. But #15 is right, it is a bit unfair to compare pixar films. Sure there's plenty of sillyness yet i see up as probably the most faithful homage to gibli, both include a bit of whimsy yet with mature story telling underneath it all. So the first 10 minutes deals with loss and grief and the protaganist is a pensioner, all in a family film, i can't praise them enough for that really. Think how easy and manipulative it would have been to put that opening montage at the end but no, they show a sequence of what comes after all that, Carl moving on with his life to have his own adventures as ellie's message tells him.

One point about pixar's human character designs though, i feel it allows them to make fully expressive personalities in a way that you simply do not get from the dead-eyed zombies in films like polar express and their uncanny valley ilk.
Syllabus
23. Angiportus
I cried at the start, at the end, and when the house lifted off--that was the best part!
I had problems with the portrayal of the fat kid as physically inept or lacking courage, and the idea that old people eat prunes all the time.
And with the part where the old man, leaving the house sitting on the tepui, says "it's just a house"--even if its time is done, that does not make it "just" or "mere".
And I wondered what it'd be like if it was an old lady and a little girl--adding a female crazed recluse hadn't crossed my imagination. But still, I'd say it was a great movie.
Syllabus
24. SKM
My husband and I went to see Up on the first day of our honeymoon. Yes, not only did he voluntarily go to a children's movie with me on our honeymoon, he teared up unashamedly at the montage and Ellie's adventure book. That's when I knew for sure I'd married a keeper. ;)
Travis Butler
25. tbutler
If the Married Life montage doesn't make you cry, I'd almost have to wonder if you're human... it's one of the most brilliant pieces of heart-manipulative moviemaking I can think of off the top of my head.

The first time the house takes off is wonderful, as is the musical accompaniment... but I love even more how we're brought back around to it again, with an even stronger voice to the music. The first time, it's an escape, a setting off into a glorious new world of adventure; a light, glittery thrill of notes that swells into a grand orchestral scene unfolding around you. But the second time, it's a triumphant victory, as he casts off all the things that were holding him back: a sudden, solo call to arms by a single horn; the rising tempo of activity growing faster and more intense, building to the final triumphant chord as the house leaps back up into the sky.

Just to throw in my two cents on Muntz... Muntz was a lot more than a frothing 1-D villain, or even Carl's dark mirror. He represents how something good and worthy can be twisted and corrupted, and how even good and worthy motives can lead to evil in the grip of obsession.

In the opening newsreel, he was wronged, and his quest to clear his name could easily be the subject of many conventional movies; when he takes off to clear his name, we're all rooting for him right along with Carl. Then when we meet him again, we're a bit wary because of his dogs' behavior - but he himself is warm, perfectly charming, a generous and gracious host. The only thing a little off is how so much of his tour seems to focus on him - but hey, he has done a lot... all right, all right, he 'kept the best stuff' for himself, but he's earned it, and look at the meal he's treating them to...

And then, the obsession rises out of the depths, on the back of paranoia. And it's more than just about him - it's about how he's been wronged. About how everything is working against him, when he's trying to clear his name... wait! Was that just a hint, that they've seen the bird?!? And look, Fredrickson's trying to change the subject, in an obviously clumsy way! He must know something! He's trying to hide it from me! He's up to no good...

...and it all goes downhill from there, of course. But I think the movie does a great job of showing us how he was a good and admirable man, how he inspired Carl and Ellie - and how you can fall from that. And even at the end - note that it's Muntz's theme that's the last thing we hear as the credits end, and that's the last impression we're left with. The Spirit of Adventure hasn't been discredited; it's what we're left with.
Syllabus
27. adriel moonstar
I loved up, loved that it's the story of an old man, loved Ellie, and I'd adopt Dug in a minute...But the one weird thing that really stands out for me is...the credits. I swear this movie has the cleverest, best designed credits I've ever seen. (Wall-e is good, but these are even better.) The way the background scenery blends with the subject is so clever. (The art badge, next to the art direction credits for exapmle.) Sit through them next time, you'll be amazed.
Syllabus
28. a1ay
20: I think you can read it either way: from a story-telling point of view there has to be a "decorating the nursery" scene to make it clear that the subsequent visit to the doctor and the depressing news are about kids specifically. If you didn't have that, just the doctor visit and Ellie looking upset, you might think that it was Ellie receiving news of something like a terminal illness, and then you'd be confused about why she kept living for the next thirty years...
Syllabus
29. AlBrown
I think that all we need to know from the montage is that they wanted children, and couldn't have them. The details are irrelevant to the story, and the temptation to spell out every detail has been the ruin of many a story.
I happen to dislike montages, to me they are the expository lumps of the movie world. I gave quite a bit of thought to how they could have done Up without the beginning scenes, and tell Carl's story in flashbacks, but couldn't come up with any ideas that would work better than the montage. So I have to give Pixar a lot of credit. They made a montage so good that I didn't want it to end.
This movie is a labor of love. I can see the folks at Pixar talking about what they love, and come up with zeppelins, card playing dogs, hidden jungle plateaus, etc. And then they put it all into the movie. No wonder it seemed so stuffed with so many different elements.
Up is one of the sweetest of the Pixar films, and a personal favorite of mine.
Syllabus
30. Gardner Dozois
I assumed she had uterine cancer and had to have a radical hysterectomy. It's happened to people I know.

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