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Probably The Best Movie I’ll See This Year August 1, 2009

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.

Yeah I know, it’s another cartoon that I wind up just flat-out loving, along with much of the rest of Pixar’s output and Brad Bird and classic Loony Tunes and South Park and The Venture Brothers – but Pixar’s latest, Up, remains one of their finest efforts to date.

The secret here is that Up is not a kids’ movie. Sure, older kids will probably enjoy it and little kids might be scared by some of the stuff with the dogs in the Amazon, but Up’s central themes are those that can only be truly understood by someone who has lived life for a while and can reflect back upon their childhood.

A lot of the film is about living your life – we see the entirety of Carl Frederickson’s (Ed Asner) life from childhood in the brilliant opening, most of which shows his longtime marriage to Ellie without any dialogue. As kids they dreamed of the exotic adventures of their Frank Buck-like explorer hero Charles Muntz (drawn to look like Errol Flynn young and somewhat like Kirk Douglas old, voiced by Christopher Plummer), but wound up living a largely domestic life. As a widower, Carl tries to keep his promise to Ellie and journey to the mysteries of South America, and when the evil forces of modern times (commercial developers & lawyers, identically portrayed as nearly faceless dark suited sunglass wearing soulless machines) try to force him out of his house and into the retirement home, he hooks up the balloons and goes on his journey.

Along for the ride is young Russell, the over-eager kiddie scout who was hiding under the porch, and while Carl is annoyed with the kid at first, eventually Carl comes to realize that the kid is basically the 2009 version of Carl as a kid – interested in nature, exploring, eager for adventure, and wide-eyed at the wonders of an often cruel world (even if this particular cruel world has silly talking dogs as its foot soldiers).

But here is where the film plays the trick that would be lost on the non-adults in the audience – while we are watching the immensely entertaining & beautifully rendered (the color palette in this film is amazing) adventures of these characters, ultimately what the film celebrates are the priceless values found within the ordinary everyday lives of average people. When Carl examines Ellie’s old adventure scrapbook as a reminder of the childhood dreams of South America, he discovers that despite never going off into the jungle, Ellie did indeed add to the end of her adventure book with page after page of pictures from their marriage – of picnics and vacations, of dinners, of simply sitting together in their favorite easy chairs – a reflection back upon the montage we saw at the start of the film. Ellie had left him a note to enjoy his next great adventure without her – and that’s when Carl realizes that next adventure is to be pseudo-grandfather to Russell. Sure, this is the point of the movie where Carl rejoins Russell and we get the Third Act where the adventure plot to save Kevin the bird gets played out (and wonderfully, including some great old-man-as-action-hero gags), but it’s also the point of the movie where Carl realizes that ordinary life is an adventure of sorts.

Russell sets this up when he tells Carl about his family. Carl (and us) piece together Russell’s often cryptic kid-speak and figure out that his dad had once mentored him in all the scouting stuff that he loves, only to divorce his mom and get a girlfriend (or possibly new wife, we never find out) named Phyllis who tells dad that the kid “talks too much.” When Russell tells Carl that most of all he misses sitting out by the curb in front of the ice cream store and counting cars with his dad, he adds “Why do I miss the boring stuff the most?” Carl learns the answer to that question when he looks through that adventure book later on. The “boring stuff” is what makes up your life, and if you look at it right, it’s not really boring – it’s precious and magical.

A nice touch with the end credits shows us a new scrapbook of photos – this time of Carl & Russell doing things together that flip back and forth between modern-day adventure-boy culture (computers, Star Wars, etc) with those elements of Carl’s childhood version that are timeless (dogs, tin-can phones, etc).

So much of our culture emphasizes fame and exults celebrity for its own sake to insane proportion. Look at all the UTTER CRAP dedicated to people merely wanting to be on TV, from reality shows to “talent” contests to Jerry friggin Springer. By inference it implies that somehow people lives are worth less if not famous, or rich, or powerful, or being seen & trendy in some be-seen-be-trendy city. Ordinary people’s lives are far too often dismissed as insignificant to “larger issues and concerns,” often the pawns and playthings of bureaucrats and policy makers, sneered at by elites of all stripes – and under this overwhelming cultural onslaught, how many people look at their own mental scrapbook wrongly, making the mistake of devaluing what IS there and only seeing what someone else made them feel ought to be there and isn’t? How refreshing that a major movie’s center of gravity is the valuing and celebration of the ordinary life, lived honestly and with heart.

This movie earns the Ellie badge. A must-see item!



1. ed - August 3, 2009

I liked that Carl looks like a cross between Martin Scorsese and Roger Ebert. I wonder if that is intentional?

2. Julie in Seattle :) - August 6, 2009

Hi, I accidently stumbled across your blog and I just have to say that I LOVED this movie, way more than my kids whom I took to see it – I cried like a fool several times during it, and laughed whole-heartedly other times, and basically, well, just genuinely loved this movie. Your review hits the nail right on the head. I’ve told plenty of adults – several without children – that they MUST see this movie…for themselves.

3. Graham - April 21, 2011

I could not agree more. Thought many of the same things the second time I watched the film.

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