Great Moments in Cinema: Up
In honor of Valentine’s Day, I decided to use this month’s column to focus on one of the most touching and heartfelt love stories ever put to film. No, I’m not talking about Twilight (sorry, kids). I figure I’ll hold off on that one until I feel like focusing on the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. Of course, I can only be talking about one thing, and that is the opening sequence of Pixar’s brilliant and beautiful masterpiece, Up (2009).
Directed by Pete Docter and Bob Petersen, Up tells the story of Carl Fredericksen (Ed Asner), a crotchety and lonely old man who lost his wife, Ellie, and now lives by himself in the home they built together the day they got married. While Carl prefers to live in the past, the rest of the world is moving on without him, and all around the city continues to grow and change. A wealthy land developer wants to buy Carl’s house so he can bulldoze it and put a shiny new skyscraper in its place, but Carl refuses to sell. However, when Carl accidentally runs afoul of the law, he is ordered to vacate the premises and move into a nursing home. Unwilling to accept his fate, Carl hatches a plan to relocate the entire house to Paradise Falls, the idyllic, untamed plateau in South America his beloved Ellie always dreamed of visiting. Thus, Carl attaches thousands of colorful balloons to the old house, and floats it high into the sky.
Having pulled off his crazy scheme, Carl settles back into his favorite easy chair, content to sit back and relax while the house drifts lazily toward Paradise Falls. But then there is a knock on the door, and Carl is dismayed to learn that a young wilderness explorer named Russell (Jordan Nagai) has inadvertently stowed away, and now Carl has to end his trip prematurely and get the boy home safely. Unfortunately, they are blown off course by a wicked storm, and soon find themselves stranded just on the other side of Paradise Falls. Now, the mismatched pair must work together to get the house over to the other side, all while staying one step ahead of the crazy and suspicious Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), an adventurer who has been living in isolation on Paradise Falls for decades, and his army of talking dogs.
Up is chock full of great moments, but the one most often cited as the best (and with good reason) is the opening sequence, in which Carl and Ellie’s entire relationship is chronicled in the space of eight beautiful, touching, heartbreaking minutes. It all starts when they were kids, and Carl was running around pretending to be his hero, the aforementioned Charles Muntz. As Carl passes by a dilapidated old house, he hears the voice of a boisterous young girl who is also playing at being the famous adventurer. After a series of mishaps, the two meet, and discover that they both share a desire to visit Paradise Falls. Then, for the next eight minutes, we watch their relationship unfold. We follow along as Carl and Ellie grow up, get married, rebuild the old house where they first met, land careers at a local zoo, learn that they can’t have children, and see them grow old together. Then we shed a tear as Ellie dies, leaving Carl all alone.
The sequence is great for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it manages to draw the viewer in so completely in a short amount of time. In that eight minutes, we get to know Carl and Ellie almost as intimately as they know one another. Even though there is not a single line of dialogue during that time, we still come to understand their hopes and dreams, and thus we become much more invested in them as characters. We want nothing more than to see them achieve their dream of visiting Paradise Falls together, and we share their frustration when life constantly gets in the way, even though they face these challenges with grace and good humor. In the course of those eight minutes we become so swept up in the travails of these two animated characters that we actually experience Ellie’s heartbreak and devastation when she learns that she cannot have children. It is a testament to the skills of both the writers and the animators that we as viewers can be so moved by characters that are little more than pixels rendered on a hard drive, but we do because we come to know these characters so thoroughly in such a short amount of time. In fact, I defy anyone to not get at least a little misty eyed when Ellie is lying in the hospital bed, and that blue balloon comes floating in with a wooden stick attached to it in a poignant callback to an earlier moment in the that sequence. There are countless romantic comedies that only wish they could generate that sort of emotion in their viewers.
Another great thing about this sequence is that it could be removed from the rest of the film, and it would totally stand on its own as a great short film. There is a complete, coherent story arc that flows through this short sequence, and it would be completely satisfying (though utterly heartbreaking) when taken on its own. However, when taken in the context of the rest of the film, it becomes even more powerful, as it sets up all of the themes explored by the larger narrative. Carl is alone when the film starts, trapped within his own memories of Ellie and the life they shared together. As the film goes on, he learns that he has been existing, but not actually living. He thought his life was over the minute Ellie died, but thanks to his growing attachment to Russell (and Dug the dog and Kevin the bird, arguably the film’s MVPs), Carl eventually learns that it is okay to carry the past with us, so long as we don’t let it weigh us down and keep us from moving forward. This notion is literalized when Carl eagerly dumps all the furniture that is weighing down the house so he can get it airborne once again, and rescue his young charge from the clutches of Muntz the mad adventurer. It is a powerful and satisfying moment for Carl, and because we have come to know him so well, it becomes all the more affecting for us as audience members. This is all thanks to that deceptively simple and wholly brilliant opening sequence that gave us so much insight into Carl as a character in the first place.
There are those who no doubt think of Up as nothing more than a children’s film, but that assessment couldn’t be further from the truth. Sure, Up is an animated film with whimsical characters and talking animals, but beneath that bright and colorful surface, there is a deep emotional core that is looking at some hard truths. There aren’t many children’s films that are willing to explore topics like being unable to conceive and the death of a loved one, so we need to cherish and celebrate the ones that do, especially when they handle these subjects as wonderfully and brilliantly as Up does.