Retro movie review: UP (10th anniversary)

(image courtesy IMP awards)

Human beings love dreams.

Not the kind that litter our sleep like so much psychedelic, nonsensical candy (though they do hold a certain attraction) but the ones that hold out hope that beyond the banal humdrum of life, true excitement and adventure awaits if only x, y or z plan can be kickdrived magically into action.

For UP‘s eighty-something Carl Fredericksen (Ed Asner) that dream involves going to the almost-mythical Paradise Falls in South America, a place popularised when Carl was a boy in the 1930s by explorer Charles F. Muntz (Christopher Plummer) where giant birds roam (though the scientific establishment disbelieves this, sending Muntz into a maddening spiral to prove them wrong) and grand, epic adventure awaits.

After a chance meeting in an abandoned old home with fellow child explorer-wannabe Ellie (Elizabeth Docter), his dream becomes a shared one that powers he and Ellie, who fall in love, marry and renovate and live in the once-derelict house, through some less than stellar life moments.

Their life together is told in a montage that follows their childhood meeting, detailing with raw, heartfelt emotional honesty how their dream of emulating Muntz and heading to Paradise Falls, set out by Ellie in her adventure book, is constantly derailed by big and small life events.

The most profoundly affecting of these is their inability to have children, something that devastates Ellie and which is explored in one of the most powerfully moving scenes in any film, animated or otherwise.

In fact, the entire montage rips your guts out and puts them back again, evoking contented happiness and searing sadness and disappointment in equal heartrending measure, proving that dialogue isn’t necessary to convey love, commitment, loyalty and hope, all of which persist throughout Carl and Ellie’s life until one day the former is left without the latter.

Bereft after so many years with the love of his life, Carl feels he’s failed manifestly to make their shared dream come true, with the ornery octogenarian convinced his life hasn’t measured up to those giddy childhood aspirations.

So when push comes to shove and Carl faces being sent to Shady Oaks Retirement Home, leaving his home and his dream behind, he does what any sane person would do – he attaches thousands of brightly-coloured balloons to his home, sending him flying up into the bright blue sky, with a course set for the much-anticipated mysterious splendour of Paradise Falls.

While Carl may be feeling that it is he alone finally realising his dream, the fact is that he is not alone at all.

A stowaway in the form of plucky, dad-deficient Wilderness Explorer (WE) Russell (Jordan Nagai) is along for the ride, only discovered when the house is well aloft and on its way.

He and Carl form an unlikely duo, Russell desperate to add the assisting the elderly badge to his almost complete collection of WE badges in the belief that his dad might finally show some interest in him and Carl determined to get to Paradise Falls, even if he has to drag a small boy along with him.

While the two come together in hilarious circumstances – Carl’s attempt to get ride of a persistent Russell back on the ground backfires with the boy following through on Carl’s spurious errand and ending up marooned under the porch, crawling up tremulously to the dubious safety of the porch itself mid-flight – they come together in ways that are real and touchingly authentic.

Far from being an annoying kid for instance Carl quickly discovers that Russell is desperate for love and affection, for affirmation and a sense of belonging, something he hopes will be his if he can get his final elusive WE badge.

Watching Carl as he comes to realise how much his onetime unwanted adventure companion needs him is intensely affecting, as is his creeping realisation that he needs Russell every bit as much as he needs him.

Some of the conversations between the two break your heart, piece by heartfelt piece, as Pixar does what it does best which is to be unstintingly honest about the toll life takes on us all, dreams or no dreams (or, especially, if we have dreams).

Time and time again in amongst the madcap chases and vibrantly silly visual imagery – watching Carl and Russell pulling the house back and forth across the clifftop near Paradise Falls in a gem as is their meeting of Dug the dog (Bob Peterson) and Kevin the very-real giant bird – we are witness to the kinds of heartwrenching conversations that expose the deep-down pain of Carl and Russell to almost lacerating degrees.

The genius of UP, directed by Pete Docter to a screenplay he co-wrote with Bob Peterson, is that it seamlessly balances all this very real life stuff, this heart on the sleeve material which is so raw and real you can practically see the blood with the kind of slapstick, giddy silly adventure that makes you believe all over again the power of dreams and adventures to change your life for the better.

They may sound like discordant halves of the same hole but they belong together in a way that speaks to the emotional intelligence and sense of truth that Doctor and Peterson bring to their story which truly speaks to the heart because neither pretends that you can have your adventure without some very real pain along the way.

The thing is, and this is only revealed towards the end, adventures don’t all take place in exotic locales like Paradise Falls.

In fact, as Carl finds out in yet another heart-stoppingly beautiful moment – UP is full to the brim with them, leaving you alternately sighing with recognition and crying your eyes out/laughing like a fiend – adventures come in all shapes and sizes, and while his epic romp around Paradise Falls with Russell, Dug and Kevin the Bird is undeniably an adventure with a capital “A”, there’s adventure to be had in the most unlikely of places, including a lifetime spent with the love of your life.

If UP has a message, and does it really need to, it’s this beguiling idea that life is an adventure as long as you find the right people to experience it with.

Ellie is unquestionably that person, and emphatically, movingly so, but then so, it turns out, is Russell who goes from annoyance to integral part of Carl’s life (and vice versa) in one funny, touching, adventurously epic story that is silly and slapstick with an emotionally meaningful heart.

UP is a classic, making us laugh, thrilling us with a battle royale with a mad, reclusive, vengeful explorer and his talking dogs, delighting us with cleverly-executed visual gags (dogs playing poker, “Squirrel!”) and reminding us over and over in ways that cut to the very depths of our hearts and souls, that finding someone special, or some people special, is perhaps the greatest adventure of them all.

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