Though it isn’t the first of Pixar’s films to inspire audiences to reach for as many tissues as possible, Up may be the most universally successful at getting grown men and women to do some good old-fashioned ugly crying. Up, released in May of 2009, was the first of Pixar’s films to be presented in both 2D and digital 3D; that latter format allowed many to use their 3D glasses as a shield, to make sure no one around them saw the tears streaming down their cheeks. However, just as it’s a predictable response that the majority of people who saw Up were viscerally impacted by the first 10 minutes, the reaction to the film as a whole has also become slightly stereotypical, summed up as follows: the so-called “Married Life” montage, in which we watch the lead character, Carl Fredricksen, and his wife, Ellie, as they live their lives over multiple decades, culminating in her death at an old age, is excellent. It’s amazing! It’s emotional! And the rest of the film can’t even begin to compete with its devastating, heartbreaking finality.
While this reaction is understandable, it’s also more than a bit reductive. (So, take heart, friends: though this is yet another column commemorating a “Pixar Moment,” the “Married Life” montage won’t be taking center stage today.) Carl’s emotional arc does not crest with his slow trudge out of the empty funeral home to his now lonely and isolated old house. His arc begins at this point, as director and co-writer Pete Docter places him at the lowest possible point so he can climb out of his self-destructive hole and embrace even the slightest shred of humanity after Ellie departed him for good. Carl is adrift when we first hear him grumble and groan in his bed, now with the voice of the ever-grizzled Ed Asner. His wife of countless years is gone, he’s retired and has no life to speak of, and the house that he and his wife lived in for so long is next on the chopping block, as a high-class construction crew is razing every other house in the neighborhood for some kind of high-rise. Carl’s last chance, after inadvertently injuring a construction worker and being forced into a retirement community, is completing Ellie’s lifelong dream: traveling to Paradise Falls, the mysterious land where their shared idol, adventurer Charles Muntz, has dwelled since discovering but failing to acquire a mysterious new species.
As much as the action elements of Up remain delightful and exciting—partly because of the unique twists on familiar tropes, such as a literal aerial dogfight at the climax—that’s not where the truly powerful moment lies in this film. No, it involves a simple act of metaphorically passing the torch, when Carl finally lets go of the last vestige of his “adventure” with Ellie: pinning the grape soda bottle cap dubbed the “Ellie Badge” onto the sash of his initially unintentional sidekick, the eight-year old Wilderness Explorer Russell. There’s so much pathos in the short scene that precedes the final few shots, in which Carl and Russell, fresh from their trip to Paradise Falls, arrive at Russell’s Wilderness Explorer badge ceremony via zeppelin. It’s not just the act of giving Russell the Ellie Badge, allowing himself to see in the hyperactive little boy many of the same winning qualities he once saw in his wife. It’s not just that Carl, by doing so, finally accepts Russell into his life, and affirms that the boy did achieve his goal of assisting the elderly. It’s that he allows himself to fully become a father figure, as close as he’ll ever get to actually having children of his own, and to a boy who desperately needs a paternal presence in his life.
Up is, most people would agree, an immensely sad film, but that sadness permeates every scene of the film, not just the opening act. Carl’s quest is, in part, to make the dream that he and Ellie shared become a reality; too often, the necessary vagaries of life got in the way when they were both alive. They saved money as they could, but then they got a flat tire. Or a tree fell on their house during a rainstorm. Something always happened, something always ruined their plans. So now, mentally choosing to see in the house the spirit of his wife, Carl decides to bring “her” to Paradise Falls. Even in this last-ditch attempt, life gets in the way. First, Russell, the obnoxious little boy who won’t stop talking about how he has to get his last badge before he can achieve his own goals, has to get stuck in the house when Carl lifts off from the ground. Then, they encounter the strange, vibrantly colorful, gawky bird Muntz has been hunting for so long, and Russell refuses to let him go. Then, a talking dog comes along, which leads to Muntz and his paranoid machinations. Obstacles consistently present themselves in Carl’s way, stretching him to a breaking point where he says, “I am going to Paradise Falls, if it kills me!”
Here, in essence, is one of Up’s not-so-hidden strengths: it is an almost disturbingly grounded film. For example, when Carl strikes the construction worker who accidentally damages his mailbox, even though he’s using a cane whose legs are capped with tennis balls, he strikes blood. It wasn’t the first time in general that Pixar had wounded one of its characters, but it was the least fantastical attack, and thus, the most shocking yet. In spite of having potentially the most fantastical logline of any Pixar film, Up is one whose characters exist in a reality heretofore unseen in the Pixar universe. So when Carl says he’s willing to give his own life to get what he wants, it’s difficult to not realize this was, to begin with, a kamikaze mission. If Carl had gotten the house, his Ellie, to the exact spot next to the top of Paradise Falls they’d always envisioned, what would he have done next? You can look at this mission as one of infinite romance, the most dedicated gesture one person could make to their true love; or you could see it as unspeakably tragic, as Docter and co-writer/co-star Bob Peterson do. The lesson Carl Fredricksen must learn by the film’s end is to, simply, let go. He can be wistful about the years he had with his wife, his best friend, but he can’t let his nostalgia drag him down any further. That mental struggle being so clearly visualized in his journey with the house speaks to one of the script’s many novel and intelligent touches: eschewing verbal language in favor of visual language.
The Wilderness Explorer badge ceremony is another triumph of the visual over the verbal. Though we do hear Carl’s short dedication speech to Russell, passing on a badge that means far more to him than any generic elderly assistance button ever could, the visual choices are what counts. As a character, Russell is as remarkable a creation as Carl is. It’s hard not to imagine the bean counters at Disney getting a little hot and bothered at the idea of Pixar’s latest summer release being centered around a grumpy old man pining after his recently deceased wife, talking dogs and colorful balloons or not. Certainly, including a potentially adorable kid as Carl’s counterpart and near-equal may seem like a conscious attempt on Pixar’s part to soften whatever hardness Carl has as a character. But Russell’s backstory is not as light as it appears. Even leaving that aside, Pixar deserves to be lauded, now as much as in 2009, for making Russell a person of color. He’s Asian-American, a fact that some people may not have appreciated for sure until this scene, in which we see his working mother—a safe presumption to make based on her attire—sitting in the sparsely attended crowd of the ceremony. There is no plot-driven reason for Russell to be Asian-American, nor are there any direct or coded references to his ethnicity. He’s Asian-American because…he is. For those commenters who have, in past columns, pointed out that forcing diversity onto future Pixar projects is unwise, from adding more female protagonists or directors, this should be your top example for why not forcing it can pay off.
What matters more about Russell as a person is that he comes from a fractured home. We do not learn until midway through the film that his parents are divorced, in the beautifully written, accurate-to-life exchange he and Carl have while using the underside of the house as shelter from a torrential downpour: “You call your own mother by her first name?” “Phyllis isn’t my mom.” Not only does this speak volumes about the characters in a deeper way—one of the less successful aspects of the script are the various throwaway gags that are meant to remind the audience of Carl’s elderly status, such as him presuming that “flash-dancing” is something kids do these days—but Russell’s reply fills in so much about his life that was previously a mystery. It’s the only logical explanation for how a kid is able to spend his day wandering around an old man’s neighborhood in search of the deadly and fictional snipe. And as chipper and overly enthusiastic as Russell is, he’s also, like Carl, an incredibly sad, nearly pathetic figure. The little, subtle touches that Russell offers—as when he first meets Dug and is concerned because his apartment building doesn’t allow dogs—all paint someone who’s desperate for any kind of connection. (Arguably, becoming friends with a septuagenarian is less normal for an 8-year old kid than being friends with other Wilderness Explorers.)
So when Carl shows up—and as it goes in movies, he’s just a little bit late, leaving Russell waiting for a couple of seconds, worried that he’ll once again get stood up by a figure of power in his life—he doesn’t need to give a speech. What he says is heartwarming and heartfelt, but the physical gesture of showing up and helping Russell complete his sash says so much more than words ever could. In context, Russell’s family life is just slightly more heartbreaking; coupled with the reveal of his mother, with Dug bouncing at her side, is the absence of anyone nearby. Russell’s father, spoken of obliquely, promised him he’d show up, to be the one standing behind him, hand resting comfortably on his shoulder. Though it may be a bit predictable that his father remains in absentia, from countless TV shows and movies depicting deadbeat divorced dads, it’s still a painful and pitiable moment leavened by the knowledge that Carl is, for now, going to be that paternal force in Russell’s life. So much of the short scene may seem clichéd, but the choices that Carl has to make—almost entirely internally, as well—to get to this point make it far more special than it may look at first glance.
Up, in no small part thanks to Michael Giacchino’s instantly iconic and Oscar-winning score, is a swooning tone poem of a film that doubles as a thrilling adventure. (That Up can claim to be inspired by, of all things, Werner Herzog’s twisted epic Fitzcarraldo is one of its many subtler delights.) The common reading, though, is that its emotional high comes extraordinarily early in the film’s 96-minute length. No doubt, the “Married Life” montage, so named for the track’s title in Giacchino’s score, is a sequence of mostly unparalleled brilliance in Pixar’s filmography, offering a wealth of honesty and character depth in only 5 minutes. But to presume that afterwards, Up cascades downward emotionally, is to stop paying attention to the film’s infinite well of pathos. Carl Fredricksen is one of the most taciturn leads Pixar has created, and little, waddling Russell is his polar opposite. But the ways in which they’re able to complement each other as people, and become stronger and more mature by accepting each other into their broken, lonely lives; as well as the culmination of that acceptance is as powerful as watching Carl and Ellie struggle to cope with not having kids and appreciating that the vision of Paradise Falls will be a dream unrealized.