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.