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Up (2009)

WARNING: COLORFUL, FLOATING SPOILERS

“Have you seen ‘Burden of Dreams’?”

“Herzog?”

About Herzog. About the making of ‘Fitzcarraldo.’”

“Refresh my memory.”

“At one point, Herzog, a little mad, directs locals in the Amazon rain forest to move a houseboat from one navigable river, over a mountain, to another navigable river. He didn’t need to do it that way but he did. And it becomes the heavy, physical representation of his dreams—and the price other people pay for them.”

“Your point?”

“I want to do the same with a house.”

“You want to move a house over a mountain?”

“I want a house to represent dreams. And the burden of dreams.”

“I thought we were talking about a cartoon.”

“We are. Initially it’ll be glorious. The house will rise up, powered by a mass of colorful balloons, because the owner, an old man, doesn’t want to sell out to developers and this is his only way to escape.”

“Wait a minute. Old man? I thought we were talking about a cartoon. For kids.”

“He’ll have a stowaway. A kid. A boy scout. And together they’ll float all the way down to South America.”

“Like Herzog.”

“‘Like America...but south!’ That’s a line we already have.”

“Good line.”

“They’ll land...but on the wrong side of Paradise Falls. And through a series of misadventures the old man will be tethered to the house, which will float slightly above them. And he’ll have to drag that floating house across this great expanse to Paradise Falls.”

“You want an old man. To drag a house. For hours.”

“Days.”

“Days?”

“Because he wants it in a certain spot. That’s his dream. And that’s the burden of his dreams.”

“I thought we were talking about a cartoon. For kids.”

“But he has to give up a lot to get the house in that spot. And once he does, once he realizes his dreams, he’ll realize his dreams weren’t worth it. That it was the other stuff that mattered more. So he starts throwing shit out of the house to get it light enough to fly again.”

“Please tell me you don’t say ‘shit’ in this movie.”

“Of course not. It’s a cartoon. For kids.”

“What happens in the end?”

“They live happily ever after.”

“I like that part.”

Or so I imagine the pitch for “Up.” Does Pixar even have to pitch anymore? No one’s recent track record is better. The director of “Up,” Pete Docter, directed “Monsters, Inc.,” which made $250 million in the U.S. and over $500 million worldwide. The screenwriter of “Up,” Bob Peterson, wrote “Finding Nemo,” which made $339 million in the U.S. and $864 million worldwide. This decade, none of their movies has made less than $200 million in the U.S. and $400 million worldwide. Their movies have the added advantage of being spectacularly good.

“Up” is no different. It begins with a 1930s newsreel, “Movietone News,” focusing on an Errol Flynn-like adventurer named Charles Muntz who extols his young viewers, “Adventure is out there!,” and it ends with the notion that it’s not our adventures but the mundane things in life that matter.

On his way home from the “Movietone” theater, Carl Fredrickson, a young, would-be adventurer, hears a voice talking up the same kind of Charles Muntz-like adventures he’s imagining in his head. It’s a girl, a very talky, very tomboyish, almost Peppermint Patty-like girl named Ellie, and the two of them plan great adventures together, including following Charles Muntz down to Paradise Falls in South America. She has an adventure book, into which she’s pasted a few items; then she’s written STUFF I’M GOING TO DO. The rest of the pages are blank. There’s a life to be lived.

Then we see it lived. Carl and Ellie get married. They buy a house. She works at the zoo and he sells balloons at the zoo. They want kids but can’t have them. Then Ellie dies, and Carl is 79, alone, and living in the house they fixed up together, surrounded by a massive development project to which he refuses to sell out. After he accidentally attacks one of the construction workers, he’s declared a public menace and is scheduled to be put in a home. They come for him the next morning. At which point he releases the balloons, and the house, tearing itself from its moorings, soars away toward South America. It’s a great, glorious scene.

But he’s got a stowaway—a kind of modern update of who he used to be. Russell is a talkative, enthusiastic wilderness explorer in troop 54 who needs only to “assist the elderly” to make senior-grade. “The wilderness must be explored!” is his credo. He’s also hapless. Earlier Carl sent him on a snipe hunt, and stowing away was a mistake, and he’s got absentee-father issues. But now he’s along for the ride.

Let me just say that I laughed out loud a lot during this movie. They weren’t cheap laughs, either, but imbedded in the small details of life. The way Russell, seeing photos of young Carl and Ellie in their aviator/adventure gear, says “Goggles,” like he’s swallowing a laugh midway through. The way, post-storm, he pokes a sleeping Carl, then says, “Whew! I thought you were dead.” The way the rare South American bird, who is named “Kevin” by Russell even though it’s a girl, squawks at Carl.

Most modern cartoon franchises try to be hip. They ape the cheaper aspects of our culture by having animated animals shake their booty, or sing, or party, or try to be famous. It’s as if the entire world, even the animal world, is made up of dopey 14-year-old boys. Which, of course, is the studio executives’ worldview.

Pixar movies focus on cultural moments rather than pop-cultural moments: that early 1960s period when astronauts replaced cowboys as heroes for boys everywhere; the difference, and similarities, between 20th-century “adventurers” and 21st-century “wilderness explorers.” Pixar doesn’t need to point to a pop-cultural phenomenon (that has nothing to do with the film) to get laughs. Two of the moments mentioned above were funny to me simply because they reminded me of my cat: the way she pokes us, incessantly, to wake us up; the way she squawks at me when she doesn’t get her way. It’s funny when she does it and it’s funny when Kevin does it. The humor is part of life, not apart from it (i.e., on television). Put it this way: In “Up,” there’s a dog, a talking dog named Dug, and he’s more real than most live-action dogs on screen. What makes him funny isn’t that he’s not like a dog—that he stands on his hind legs and sings a rap song, for example, as he might in other animated features—but that he’s exactly like a dog. Pixar finds humor intrinsically within the object.

And drama. And sorrow. At Paradise Falls, Carl, burdened by his house, chooses the house, and what it represents, over Kevin, and Dug, and even Russell, and what they represent. Then he sits in it, alone, his longstanding dream finally realized, and he looks through Ellie’s old adventure book, and the unfulfilled promise of STUFF I’M GOING TO DO. But the pages beyond aren’t blank; he’s shocked to find they’re filled with the life he and Ellie lived together. This fact recalls something Russell said earlier about his father: “I think the boring stuff is the stuff I remember most.” That’s what Ellie filled her pages with: the boring, everyday stuff we discount but that means the most. On the last page Ellie includes a note to Carl: “Thanks for the adventure. Now go have a new one! Love, Ellie.” And as he does, as her words inspire him to throw out most of the stuff in his house to get it aloft again, to get back into the adventure, I sat there, a 46-year-old, tearing up.

Is it a lie? Pixar tells us an adventure story that tells us it’s not the adventures that matter.

I don’t think it’s a lie. I think they’re getting at one of the more profound things movies can say.

A good movie leaves us with a mood. Last week I left “L’Heure d’ete” feeling that life is sad, and the stuff we accumulate, that seems precious to us, is just a burden to others, even when it’s legitimately, aesthetically precious. Remember the last lines of “American Beauty”? Lester talks about how, now that he’s dead, he’s grateful for every single stupid moment of his life. But that’s not the mood the movie leaves us with. It leaves us with a wish for that feeling.

“Up” actually leaves us with that feeling. I left the theater grateful for every single, stupid, boring moment of my life.

Near the end of the movie, Russell says to Carl: “Sorry about your house, Mr. Fredrickson.”

“It’s just a house,” he responds.

Thanks for the adventure, Pixar.

—May 30, 2009

© 2009 Erik Lundegaard