Were the filmmakers behind Up, the latest feature from Pixar Animation Studios, scared by their own movie’s seriousness?
Pixar has always had a fondness for melancholy – from the loss of Nemo’s mom to the bittersweet nostalgia that imbued Cars – yet few of its pictures have dealt in the sort of deep dismay that defines Up.
At least the movie starts that way. In its bittersweet prologue, the movie introduces Carl Fredrickson (voiced by Ed Asner). We meet him as a quiet kid enamored with nature explorers and follow him all the way to his final years as a grumpy widower. It’s a delicate montage anchored by the repeated image of Carl’s wife tightening his tie each morning. We get the sense that Carl’s life was a pleasant, if unfulfilled, one. There are inferences to the couple’s infertility and then the stark truth of his wife’s death, which occurs before they had a chance to take the trip to South America they had planned for most of their lives.
These early passages are heartbreaking – watching them was the first time I’ve shed a tear in a theater in quite a while. The beginning of Up is awash in genuine emotion, artfully earned. It makes you uncomfortable in an honest way, which may be why the story makes an abrupt turn into action-adventure territory. It’s almost as if the filmmakers stage a retreat.
In its second act, Carl loses his temper with one of the construction workers building a high-rise next to his little house. Carl hits him, the construction company files charges (they wanted his house anyway) and the judge orders Carl to move into a senior-housing facility. Instead, he ties thousands of helium balloons to his beloved home and promptly floats away. It’s South America or pop.
What follows is undeniably entertaining in that wildly inventive Pixar way. A boy scout named Russell (Jordan Nagai) has smuggled aboard in hopes of earning an “assisting the elderly” badge. When he and Carl arrive in South America, even livelier, loony characters join the fray: a dog named Dug whose collar allows him to speak and a rare, brilliant bird whose visual design owes a lot to Dr. Seuss.
Madcap adventures ensue, staged with the same Rube Goldberg ingenuity that co-director Pete Docter brought to Monsters, Inc.. Yet the further Carl travels into the jungle the further the movie gets from the wounded heart at its start. It’s not that I didn’t want Carl to heal, it’s that it would have been more moving if he had healed without turning into Indiana Jones.
Near its end, Up doubles back a bit to that earlier richness. When Carl finds a clue that his wife didn’t die in disappointment, my tears briefly returned. And the sight of the balloons as they unfurl from the house’s chimney is an image for the ages. Those balloons prove remarkably resilient throughout the movie. It’s your heart that might burst.