I knew Up was one of those rare first-rate movies when I found myself really yearning to see it for a second time. Actually, that wouldn’t have been so unusual, except that I was still sitting in the theater and had only gotten through 20 minutes of seeing it for the first time. It’s that good.
And that in itself isn’t so unusual, considering that this is a film from Pixar Studios, whose previous films (Wall-E, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc., Toy Story) have been not only excellent, but also original. Leave it to the other animation studios to crank out films in which bland themes (like “Follow Your Dreams”) provide vehicles for pop-culture references and gross-out jokes. In recent years, Pixar gave us a robot cleaning up an abandoned planet Earth, a rat who wants to be a French chef, superheroes chafing under forced retirement, and the courageous monsters who must inhabit children’s closets. Imagination still exists, in some quarters.
The central image of Up is of an elderly man towing a house. He’s pulling it along by means of a garden hose connected to a low faucet, and the building is held aloft by masses of helium balloons, though it sinks a little lower every day. The man is crossing a flat, dark-gray landscape interrupted by pillars of rocks stacked in inscrutable patterns. (You can say, “Yeah, yeah, the old ‘man-towing-a-house’ story,” but I promise this one’s different.)
The house, you see, is a Valentine. Seventy years before, Carl Frederickson met his bride, Ellie, in this house. At the time it was broken-down and abandoned, but when they married they bought it and fixed it up. From childhood Carl and Ellie had cherished a dream of emulating their hero, intrepid explorer Charles Muntz, and the whimsical expression of this dream was a childish crayon sketch of their home at the edge of South America’s Paradise Falls. (The film’s crew journeyed to Venezuela’s Tabletop Mountains for inspiration.) Now Ellie has died, every other structure around the home has been bulldozed, and since the couple was childless, Carl’s life seems pointless and empty. So he’s going to put that house at the edge of Paradise Falls, if — as he says, and as seems likely — “it kills me.”
But that isn’t what kids are going to like, or even notice, about this movie. For them, it’s mostly about Dug the talking dog, and Russell, Carl’s chubby eight-year-old sidekick, and Kevin, a glorious, 13-foot-tall iridescent bird. This is a really hilarious movie, and there are plenty of chases and action sequences, too (this is only the second Pixar film to have a PG rating, in this case for “peril”). But, as in other Pixar films, there is an intriguing theme underneath all the fun; here, as before, the theme has to do with the goodness of marriage and family life, and the self-sacrificing love a parent (or parent-figure) has for a child.
In a way, Up is a variation on It’s a Wonderful Life. Carl regrets that he was never able to bring Ellie to Paradise Falls, but he comes to see that their ordinary hometown life was a sweet and significant adventure in itself, one that gave Ellie joy. Russell finds that the wilderness is “more wild” than he expected, and “not like they say in books,” and that what he misses is eating ice cream and counting cars with his dad: “It might sound boring, but I think the boring stuff is what I remember most.”