Since 1995 Pixar Animation Studios has found the holy grail regarding technological advancements when crafting their next animated masterpiece. And up to this point, 2009 with their latest simply titled Up, the studio’s win streak keeps going strong. The gold standard has been set and other studios like DreamWorks and Illumination are playing catch up to the leader of the pack. What Pixar has done exceedingly well with its unique slate of films is adding a deep resonating emotional attachment to their characters. Up follows in that path but does so in a way that will break your heart immediately as the film begins.
In an unexpected way, Up’s opening moments set the tone for the rest of the film, establishing the connection to the characters through one of the sweetest and simultaneously Heartwreching sequences the studio has put on screen. It’s a sequence that tells a full story in and of itself but is used to bring us up to speed with the current state of mind the main character Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) is in. A poignant sequence that will serve as reminder to cherish life and the ones we hold close.
In present day, Carl lives in a changing world, one that would go scorched earth with the old and bring in the new, expensive skyscrapers with unaffordable apartments and housing. His modest two-story house he built with his wife Ellie is the last remaining property on the busy street they live on that is being sought after by building developers. Carl puts up a fight, stubbornly resisting the opportunity to relocate to an assisted living community called Shady Oaks.
Carl has a point for resisting – his entire existence is in that house. Every memory made, good and bad, as depicted in the opening sequence is there being held on to by an aging lonely old man with not much else to live for. Removing himself from the house would be a disaster, a way of giving up. Carl and Ellie built that home from the ground up, made it their own from the handprints on the mailbox to the painting of Paradise Falls, their dream adventure. Since they were little, Carl and Ellie dreamt of traveling to South America, following in the footsteps of their hero Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer). Muntz is an explorer of unknown locations across the globe, setting off in his airship the Spirit of Adventure, Muntz becomes a role model for the youth who seek adventure.
With a story by Tom McCarthy, Bob Peterson and Pete Doctor, the latter two who also wrote the screenplay with Doctor directing as well, Up belongs among the greats that came before it – telling a complete, memorable, and emotionally impactful story in 96 minutes. The premise is set around an adventure Carl takes to Paradise Falls to fulfill his promise to Ellie with an unwelcomed guest named Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai). To get to the destination, Cal inflates hundreds of balloons through his chimney that lifts the house off its foundation – flying through the skies, heading south. Along the way, Carl and Russell encounter a flightless bird Russell names Kevin and a pack of dogs with voice activated collars, among them Dug (voiced by Bob Peterson).
Up’s themes are present throughout its runtime. From grief to obsession, to finding happiness in unexpected places, Doctor and Peterson make Ellie the films anchor – Carl will go to the extreme of moving his entire house through dangerous weather using an unusual method because he misses her. Grief comes in different forms for everyone. it can be something as small as holding onto a home while the rest of the block is modernized or shutting yourself off emotionally from those around you. Pete Doctor and Bob Peterson have been working on Pixar films since Toy Story, their fundamental understanding of adding layers of human relatability to their characters – experiencing their pain and eventual happiness.
They say never meet your heroes. Since he was a boy, Carl looked up to the Kirk Douglas like character Charles Muntz, becoming obsessed with going to South America with Ellie to meet their hero. Fast forward years later and Charles is nothing like his on-screen persona. He’s paranoid and isolated with the only communication and social life coming by way of interacting with his dogs. It may take halfway through to reintroduce the character, but the villain turn sticks the landing. It’s never those we expect in a Pixar film when it isn’t explicitly established. Christopher Plummers performance sneaks up on you – effortlessly playing the icon every kid looks up to but ending up a fraction of the person he’s supposed to be. Charles obsession takes over, blurring his vision and ultimately consuming him.
Aside from the breathtaking animation which improves with every film, Ed Asner’s gruff performance as Carl transitions well into a man we only got a glimpse of in the opening sequence. Without realizing it, Russell changes Carl’s life, reminding Carl that there is much to live for and many adventures to go on still. Russell is the son Carl never had which further strengthens the impact of the first 10 minutes and a single frame without words.
Supplementing the wordless opening sequence with his own personal touch is a score by Michael Giacchino. Giacchino captures the little moments to the grandioso ones, filling life with music where words may not have the same lasting effect, as a trumpet or a violin or a drum. Giacchino’s score is another notch in the escapist adventure – soft and sweet when it needs to be to loud and intense during the biggest moments.
Up is a constant reminder to enjoy the little things in life. Living in the moment with the right person will be the adventure we all seek. Tough times don’t last but tough people do. Carl and Russell are tough characters. While grief and sadness can be escaped, those strong feelings will always come back but it’s how we adapt and find new meaning beyond the sadness that Up promises. Pete Doctor and Bob Peterson’s underlying message in their film is to cherish life, never lose your sense of wonder and adventure, let go of any grudges and let go of the wheel, or in this case the rope that’s hooked onto the weathervane as a makeshift steering wheel. Up is beautiful, intelligent, gorgeously animated and scored and an overall necessary story to be told and retold for years to come.
Screenplay By: Bob Peterson & Pete Doctor
Story By: Bob Peterson, Tom McCarthy & Pete Doctor
Directed By: Pete Doctor
Music By: Michael Giacchino
Cinematography: Patrick Lin & Jean-Claudie Kalache
Starring: Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, Bob Peterson
Release Date: May 29, 2009
Running Time: 1 Hour 36 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%