Up (2009, Pete Docter)
Whereas Ratatouille amplified and intensified and thus cancelled out its obligations to the standards of cartoon kiddie fare and WALL-E copped to them, Pete Docter’s follow-up to Monsters, Inc. just strips them down to their bare essentials: the grumpy old man reluctantly bonding with the young boy, straight out of On Golden Pond or Hemingway, both gradually revealing their vulnerabilities in eyes and hushed conversations, but then it’s all against the backdrop of a batshit South American caper involving rare birds, talking dogs, gigantic blimps and discredited fossils. When you really think about it, the entirety of the wild fantasy-adventure story and its kitchen sink theatrics, funny as they are, serve chiefly as a distraction from the extreme grief we’re actually witnessing in Carl, the old man whose loss of his wife has sunken him into a misanthropic depression.
When Up concentrates on Carl and the late Ellie’s relationship, it’s an almost unbearably beautiful film. The mostly silent opening ten minutes, which tell the story of their marriage from the “boring stuff” to the miscarriages to unfulfilled ambitions to happiness to death, are sufficiently affecting that one doubts the heart beating in a person who claims not to be moved by it. The entire film is, of course, really about Ellie and her absence from Carl’s future; as he toys with whether to participate in Pixar’s succession of whiz-bang action setpieces, what he’s really doing is debating whether he can continue to fulfill his promises of open-hearted flexibility to her in a manner she would appreciate. It’s a stronger statement on marriage than you’d expect from a children’s film, though maybe not so surprising from Pixar — if one thinks of a sustained romance as a specific kind of commitment, it can convincingly be as much a motivator to continue one’s life under the shadow of its examples as it can be to retain some sort of a corporate brand identity. That’s less cynical than it sounds; Ellie is sufficiently real and familiar to Carl, even in death, that he has confidence in what her feelings about his present plight would be, something that resonates with the continued legacy of someone like Walt Disney.
That optimism spoke to me strongly when I first saw Up in 2009. It was in fact the first movie my now-fiancee and I saw together by choice, a month into our relationship; it’s such a strong, vivid memory to me that I remember exactly what gas station we went to just afterward (now demolished) and got slushees, at which point Amber said “that was a really lovely movie we just saw.” Its throttling sense of what love could be honestly so overshadowed everything else that happened in the film that I found I’d almost forgotten Kevin and Dug, both delightful characters who figure into Carl’s increasing self-awareness along with the overly eager young boy Russell. To be honest, no experience with this film can ever duplicate that first encounter — partially because of the circumstances, sure, but also because we went in 100% cold. We had seen no trailers, read no reviews (apart from noticing that they were very positive), caught but one internet banner ad, knew nothing of the story save the early promotional shot of the floating house. Such a condition is rarely possible these days but when it is, I recommend it; it was a spectacular ride not being aware of where this picture was taking us — and being blindsided by the sadness at its core was unexpectedly touching in that context.
So now, the third time through, I notice that the script is problematic; it relies so heavily on the improbable that its grave emotions feel occasionally like a mismatch, especially in the conversations between Carl and Russell about the latter’s absentee father; these moments feel more than a little rushed and haphazardly written. The comic setpieces are riveting and beautifully directed by Docter, but the relationships are never as believable as those in Monsters, Inc. with the sole and vital exception of that between Carl and Ellie. It’s something of a pity that Ellie has no lines as an adult, that her voice is only really known to us second-hand, and of course this along with the paucity of female roles in the film led to a serious conversation about Pixar’s overwhelming maleness, a problem it retains. Nevertheless, Up manages to present a persuasive illustration of a good marriage without a single moment of marital dialogue — in that regard, its opening moments are as impressive a feat as the latter half of Murnau’s Sunrise and an object lesson, given to a mass audience, on the power of silent storytelling. (And a better such lesson by far than the Chaplinesque comedy in the first act of WALL-E.)
Few of the flaws in Up are particularly bothersome while viewing it; the cogs don’t visibly turn like they do in Cars or WALL-E. it may not have the cinematic exuberance or absolute magic of Ratatoulle, still Pixar’s peak, but it is a sweeping and grand bit of adventure storytelling in an appropriately old-Hollywood tradition. It’s abetted in this regard immeasurably by the composer Michael Giacchino, whose work on the two Brad Bird features at Pixar was already stunning; his scoring throughout Up, particularly in the early montage sequence, is delicate, nostalgic, uplifting, note-perfect. The film couldn’t be the same without him. And much like his Ratatouille score, it lingers in the mind for days afterward — though in this case, I find that when it echoes in my head I’m thinking about my own life as much as the film itself, and I’m guessing that would please Docter and his team.