I think Up deserves an Oscar. Not only is it the best animated picture of the year, it is one that convinced me that digital animation is a formidable medium that I would be well-served to accept. What I really liked about Up is that although a children’s film, its message of life after death is actually quite grown up, and not in the grown up, slyly winking style of a Wes Anderson Fantastic Mr. Fox but grown up in the fact that the movie’s themes are presented elegantly and simply, at once entertaining and on-message. Are children’s movies the next adults between 18 and 49 genre? I do not know, but Up makes a good argument for.
This idea is funny, because Up really does not have any characters from that demographic. Think about it, Carl is a senior citizen and Russell is a pre-adolescent boy, a tween in Disney-speak (thankfully without the obnoxious Hannah Montana baggage). The only adults are the cell-phone carrying architects who are trying to evict Carl from his home. You could argue that it is the mere absence of adults that marks this film—Russell’s dad is negligent, the medical techs who come to take Carl to Shady Oaks simpering, and Carl’s wife Ellie dead. Is director Peter Docter doing away with adults for a reason? Are they artifacts of a meshugge generation, one whose main aim beyond technology is money? Do they know as much about life as old people and children?
By all appearances from the plot, this is an adventure. Newlyweds Carl and wife Ellie picks a point on the globe, South America (“Just like America, but south” according to Russell) remote enough to not be bothered, to travel to one day when they have the money. Unfortunately, Ellie dies (again, very un-Disney) and Carl is left alone. A balloon vendor, Carl ties up thousands of balloons to his home and takes off one morning after assaulting a contractor come to take over his house and build an office on top of it. Unlikely but equally unfortunate, a young boy, Russell hitches along for the ride. At Paradise Falls, they find a crazed explorer Charles Muntz, bent on discovering a rare bird. Chaos ensues as Carl and company find the aptly named she-bird “Kevin” first.
Here’s the ironic part to the adventure—it’s essentially pointless. Oh, sure, they save Kevin and meet a loveable golden named Dug, but there is no intrinsic value to the adventure. In fact, the only thing Carl learns is that his wife’s adventure book is already quite full. Under “Things I’m Going to Do” are photos from the couple’s marriage. It was his promise to Adventure with her, yet he finds that that promise was not broken.
OK, before you throw Dorothy’s “there’s no place like home” at me—I don’t find this message hackneyed. Think about it, the balloon-home is unable to be rescued; in the final scene it rests on the cliff of Paradise Falls. The house, the dream, the wife is gone. All that remains is a scrapbook with a couple of memories from a mundane and childless marriage. We can rightly assume Carl is assigned to Shady Oaks after returning to the city—he could even be on probation for assaulting the contractor. Russell’s dad does not show up for his “Wilderness Explorers” ceremony. Review that awards ceremony scene at the end—have you seen a more depressing pay-off in a movie? In a kids’ movie for gosh sake? I have never seen a bigger tent-pole movie with such a humble message—enjoy the things you have because they will turn into memories.
Yet according to Up those memories need to sustain us. Look at Muntz. In his quest to find the bird, whatever it is, he loses out on a lifetime of memories, instead retreating into himself and his madness. This is what happens when you try to hold onto things—you end up losing everything else.
So, in the end, Up is a winsome piece of fluff. The story is exciting, the characters warm and fun, but like Prospero’s midnight mushrooms, they are of no weight, no purpose, their only object being to send a wispy message: Enjoy life when you can.
A pretty subversive message coming from a Silicon Valley media conglomerate that makes pablum for kids, huh? All I can say is I am glad I was there for the ride.