Friday, January 15, 2010

UP (2009): A Haunted House and the Spirit of Adventure

There's a lot of outlandish action in the latest Pixar feature, and that's only to be expected. The outlandishness isn't usually worth remarking on. Ideally, you should feel no cause to question, for example, how a civilization of sentient automobiles without fingers or thumbs could build or use tools, not to mention cities. Nothing in Up is that outlandish, apart from the physics that lift the balloon-borne Fredericksen house off its foundation and allow it to outrace an engine-driven dirigible. Carl Fredericksen's athletic feats are pretty outlandish, I suppose, for someone I guesstimate to be in his early eighties, and normally that shouldn't bug me in a cartoon. This is, after all, cartoonish action, the kind of severe slapstick that doesn't really hurt anybody. A pack of dogs go over a cliff in failed pursuit of our heroes, but we soon see them all dogpaddling to safety. Three more dogs are piloting attack planes (it's a cartoon!) with hostile intent, but Carl tricks them ("Squirrel!") into crashing their planes together. We immediately see all three pilots parachuting earthward. Even the villain is sent off with enough helium balloons, by Up standards, to assure him a chance to plot his revenge. All of this should be normal, or par for the cartoon course, but this time it bugged me. This time the nobody-dies rule of Pixar's roller-coaster mayhem had me asking: in a cartoon world like this, why does anyone have to die? And yet...

I know a joke! A squirrel walks up to a tree and says, 'I forgot to gather nuts for the winter and now I am dead.'...It is funny because the squirrel gets dead.
- Dug the dog

The shadow of death stretches across the whole length of Up. As every reviewer notes, the film opens with a capsule narrative of Carl Fredericksen's life, focusing on his early friendship and lifelong romance with Ellie, a tomboy fellow adventure fan. Their love endured despite constant disappointment, from their failure to have children to their inability to follow their shared childhood dream to the lost world of Paradise Falls. This opening section closes with a grim reversal as Ellie, who could once outrace her fatbodied husband up their favorite little hill, grows too feeble to make the climb while Carl waits to surprise her with plane tickets for their belated adventure. In a moment of movie time Carl is a widower who feels that he failed his wife. For Pixar this downbeat business is almost a matter of showing off, fresh proof that they can hit all the emotional notes. It's the bleakest bit of theirs since Jessie's flashback of abandonment in Toy Story 2, and it can't help leaving the impression that Up has something to do with inexorable aging and eventual death. So when Carl goes on to perform practically superhuman stunts later in the movie, only betraying his age when it makes a good gag, that seems to belie or betray the message of the opening section. But that can't be what Pixar meant to do, could it? Some critics have complained about the film's relapse into conventional roller-coaster ride action, but there has to be a point to it, and that point has to have something to do with the first part of the film.

The adventure begins when Carl, once a balloon salesman at the local zoo, uproots his house with the help of thousands of helium balloons. He hopes to reach Paradise Falls and fulfill his late wife's dream of visiting the place. The house is where they first met back in the Thirties, when it was an abandoned eyesore that Ellie had turned into her private clubhouse. They bought it and cleaned it up after they married, and as Up proper opens it's the last residential structure on a block given over to large-scale development. It's a relic in more than one sense. For Carl, it's a symbolic representation of Ellie. In some scenes, he seems to address the house as if it was Ellie or housed her spirit. In a sense it does, but it also stands for Carl's unfulfilled dreams and his burden of grief. Its metaphorical weight shifts as the film goes on, from the inspiration that lifts him away from the mundane modern world to a burden to which he's tethered that gets in the way of his real responsibility. We're meant to eventually see it as something he has to let go as a way of finally letting go of Ellie, but he can't do that until he undergoes something like a mystical dream experience.

There's nothing so magical as an appearance by Ellie's ghost. In this respect, Up sticks to the rigor of the opening section; Ellie is gone and never coming back. But there is a little posthumous communication that becomes the decisive thematic moment of the film. If it's posthumous that's Carl's fault. Blinded by despair and grief, he missed a message Ellie tried to send him before she died. Anyway, Carl might not have been ready to accept the message or learn its lesson until he put himself through his ordeal at Paradise Falls.

A Fredericksen family talisman is "My Adventure Book," a scrapbook Ellie started compiling before she met Carl. The last page she touched for a long time was the one marked, "Stuff I'm Going to Do," which was meant to chronicle her lifetime of exotic adventure. The book is put aside for awhile after she marries Carl, but he puts it back in her hands to take her mind off the grief of losing her chance at children. It is now meant to chronicle their adventures that they were never able to afford. On her deathbed, Ellie passes the scrapbook back to Carl, but he can't bring himself to contemplate all the empty pages until he makes a final effort to straighten the house up after the latest disaster at the Falls. Then he discovers that the later pages weren't empty.

This discovery forces Carl to think hard about the meaning of the word adventure. If any word defined both his and Ellie's aspirations, that was it. It's a word they associate with their childhood idol, the explorer Charles Muntz, who flew in the dirigible "Spirit of Adventure" and had as his motto, "Adventure is out there!" The Fredericksens aspired to follow Muntz to Paradise Falls, where he disappeared back in the Thirties while searching for a rare giant bird. As it turns out, Muntz is still alive and still hunting, a hale and hearty centenarian, when Carl reaches his destination. He also forces Carl to reappraise the meaning of adventure. That's because Muntz, whom little Carl and Ellie saw as an unfairly treated martyr, proves to be a greedy, egotistical, paranoid exploiter and vivisectionist. Only now does Carl learn the modern lesson that an exotic giant bird isn't something for Muntz to capture and exhibit on stage, but a creature that has a right to its own life. And only after Carl comes to question Muntz's idea of adventure does he learn an alternate definition from Ellie.

Ellie had filled the remaining pages of her Adventure Book with photos of her married life. It's a collection of photos of their happy times together, closing with scenes of their old age. On the last page is her parting message to Carl: "Thanks for the adventure. Now go have a new one." Well, hasn't he? Not yet, he realizes, because he had still believed that adventure was something "out there," as Muntz says. To the contrary, Ellie says, like a gentler version of Marley's ghost, that mankind, or life itself, -- represented throughout the main story by Russell the well-meaning but annoying little stowaway, -- is the true adventure. But it's most likely that Carl couldn't fully absorb this lesson until he had his disillusioning encounter with Muntz. He needed to have a mystic experience in order to appreciate the life he still had -- and thus Up reveals itself as a variation on the theme of It's A Wonderful Life.

The remodeled house is the most obvious invocation of Capra's film, while the Fredericksens are a George and Georgette Bailey with a lifetime of deferred dreams. Like George Bailey, Carl needs to realize that he's had a wonderful life, and it might not have been enough for Ellie to tell him so. But the problem isn't that Carl wishes he hadn't been born. Things weren't that bad for him. His problem is that he thinks he hasn't fully lived. So his house (figuratively a vehicle for Ellie's soul) takes him to Paradise Falls to give him a belated chance at the adventure he craved as a child, and an opportunity to discover its limitations. And if we accept the entire balloon adventure as a spiritual intervention (albeit without a visible guiding spirit at work) then that resolves the apparent inconsistency in tone between the somber realism of the opening section and the essentially magical events later on.

Having established all that, I think Up is a pretty amusing film and the usual Pixar wonder of computerized animation. Dug the Dog's joke about the squirrel is probably the funniest thing I've heard in a 2009 film and it's all in the dumb deadpan and somehow plausibly alien delivery. The character animation and sight gags are great as always. Ed Asner, who voiced Carl, should get some sort of award for his work. But there are things I didn't like, like Russell; I never warmed to the little butterball and his too-obvious role as surrogate for the son that Carl never had. I especially didn't like the treatment of the Muntz character, whom the film transforms from someone like the original Carl Denham (his unveiling of the bird skeleton struck me as a quote of Kong) to something more like Peter Jackson's Denham, a callow weasel. Is the heroic explorer archetype so offensive to modern sensibilities that any such character has to be an oaf or a monster? But that's not an aesthetic judgment, just a personal one. Overall, Up is another solid hit for Pixar, but probably their least effective film since the studio adopted a yearly schedule. A weak Pixar still outclasses most of the CGI competition, though, and this film's peculiar difficulties actually provoked thoughts that ended up enriching the thing for me. Most of today's cartoon features provoke no thoughts at all. They don't exactly have to, but the fact that Up did earns it my critical approval.


Dave said...

Samuel - I think that the first 15 minutes or so of UP, with that silent film sequence showing the life of Carl and Ellie, is among the best filmmaking I've seen from a new film in a long time. Spectacular stuf.

Troy Olson said...

Samuel -- That is probably the best analysis I've read on the dissection of the emotional underpinnings of the film. Without a doubt, it's amazing that this kind of analysis is even possible with a "cartoon."

Also liked the comparison to IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, as it's quite apt.

Oh, and I'll second Dave on that montage at the beginning. Best 15 minutes I saw all year. Other could learn from that on how to use classical film techniques so effectively.

Judy said...

This is a brilliant review, Samuel - I was fascinated by your analysis of how the rest of the film leads on emotionally from the stunning opening sequence. I must admit I don't warm to Russell either and feel the film does fall off after the power of that opening, but your comments make a lot more sense of the whole Paradise Falls theme.

Samuel Wilson said...

Dave and Troy: That opening section is brilliant for all the different narrative devices it employs, as well as for its emotional power.

Judy: I was expecting some sort of circle-of-life payoff to Russell's presence, something like him meeting a girl Wilderness Guide at the end who might be his Ellie, but it never happens. I think part of my problem with the kid is that I wanted to think of him as a modern version of young Carl (hence my expectation), while the child-Carl-never-had role he actually plays is less interesting.

Neil Fulwood said...

I can only add to Dave's comment. You could watch the first five minutes of 'Up', leave the theatre (or switch the DVD off) and felt that you'd had your money's worth and then some. Perhaps the reason that the hi-jinks of the second half sits so awkwardly is because that opening scene makes heart-wrenching romantic poetry out of the ordinary, the everyday, the simple and unglamorous business of two people leading a normal life but imbuing that life with so much love and affection. When you can depict that onscreen - in an animated film firmly pitched at the family audience, to boot - you don't really need talking dogs and airships.

Still, 'Up' is a fine and entertaining film, if not necessarily in Pixar's top tier.

Sam Juliano said...

Wow, this is the best review of UP I have yet read. That scrapbook sequence does rank among the best scenes in cinema for 2009. You discussion of the remodeled house and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE is superlative and dead-on. Although your gave this film a superlative assessment, for me UP rates as the second greatest Pixar film behind WALL-E, and in terms of pure artistry it's their strongest film.