Up: A film That’s Truly for All Ages

A lot of movies advertise themselves as “fun for the whole family,” or they say that children and adults will both find something to like in it. Usually, this means the movie features a bunch of cute animals (or ogres or whatever) for the kiddies to “Ooh” and “Aww” at, with a few popular culture references thrown in for mom and dad. For example, think of every joke in every Shrek movie. 


My problem with this approach is that it doesn’t really satisfy anyone. The pop culture jokes go right over the kids’ heads, and the cute animals are too simple and predictable to involve the parents. No one is really sure if senior citizens like these movies, but as they in marketing stereotypes, “It’s a market we can do without.” The result is a movie-watching experience in which everyone in the family might appreciate different facets of the movie, but those are unlikely to overlap. It’s almost as if no one watched the same movie. What should be a unifying experience becomes a separate one. 

One of the reasons movies are made with this cut-and-paste, cram-it-in approach is that it’s easy. It is much easier to slap together ready-made plot points and stock characters than it is to create an organic, involving story that everyone can enjoy together. 


Thank God that Pixar does it the hard way. 


Two of Pixar’s best movies, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, both feature characters of varied ages who learn to work together and relate to one another. In most other movies, Dash and Violet Parr would have had to work together to rescue their bumbling, ironically “incredible” parents. In Brad Bird’s film, however, Mr. and Mrs. Incredible are helped by their children, but the parents help the children just as much; they have to rely on one another, to become a family, in other words, to defeat Syndrome. In Finding Nemo, Marlin is an overprotective father; he loves Nemo, but he is afraid of losing him as he grows up. And Nemo loves his father, but he also feels the need to grow up and go on adventures. Instead of showing the brave son striking out on his own, though, Finding Nemo turns the conventional story upside down by sending the father on the adventure. After they finally find one another again, they have both learned how much they need each other, and that they can have their next adventures together. 


Up continues this pattern of reconciliation and growing together, but it begins with an audacious gamble: The protagonist is a crotchety old man named Carl Frederickson, and in a choice even more daring than the dialogue-free opening act of WALL-E, it shows the entire arc of Carl’s life with his wife Ellie in a few silent minutes. This montage  is wonderfully free of excitement and spectacle. With humor and heartbreak, it simply shows us who these people were and are. I imagine that younger children will see their grandparents on the screen, middle-agers will see their parents, and older people will see themselves. That is, they will see the montage differently, but in a way that invites discussion and stories. 


Carl’s lonely life is interrupted by Russell (first-time voice actor Jordan Nagai), an awkward boy intent on earning his Helping the Elderly merit badge. Carl has no interest in letting Russell or anyone else help him, because from his perspective, his life ended when his wife died. The only thing that rouses Carl from his torpor is the possibility of a final adventure to Paradise Falls, the mythical land to which his boyhood hero Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), introduced in a news-reel flashback, disappeared years ago. Carl cannot make the journey with Ellie, of course, so he brings a metaphor instead: His house. It is his last link to his wife, and has in many ways become a stand-in for her in his life. 


The joyous surprise of the house borne aloft on a cluster of balloons has probably been spoiled for you by Up’s trailers, but seeing it on a TV or computer is nothing compared to seeing it on the movie screen. It reminded me of the ending of Albert Lamorisse’s classic fable The Red Balloon, when the red balloon flies away surrounded by all his balloon friends, except that in Up, I got to go along for the ride. 


It’s at this point that Up shifts gears and becomes something I did not expect: An exhilarating adventure complete with talking animal sidekicks and a monomaniacal villain. It’s a testament to the genius of screenwriter Bob Peterson (Finding Nemo) that I did not immediately hate Dug, the talking dog for whom Peterson also provides the voice.


 In her review for the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote that this is when “the story grows progressively more formulaic.” I understand her criticism to a point–it’s not hard to guess where the story is going to go–but her real complaint seems to be that Up has a plot. I got the impression Dargis wanted the movie to remain rooted to the ground, with Carl just waiting for his life to finally end, like a character in a Beckett play. 


The narrative power of Up goes far beyond simply what happens in the story, however. In addition to the geriatric swordplay and running “Squirrel!” jokes, the final act of Up is a powerful emotional illustration of what it means to really live: To grow up and move on and keep going, whether you’re 8 or 78 or anywhere in between. The scene when Carl has to decide between holding on to his past or pursuing his future is the closest I have come to crying at a movie in years. 


As in other Pixar movies, Up shows the value of community; Carl and Russell need one another, and to realize that, they needed to go on this journey together. Where Finding Nemo primarily showed the joys of adventure, though, Up goes a step further, suggesting that it is the small, everyday, “boring” moments of life that end up meaning more than the big, dramatic events. 


I suspect that by the end of Up, everyone in the theater–young, old, and everyone in between–will want to go out for ice cream and eat it on the curb with their families. I know I did. 


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