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Pixar’s “Up” Soars (Mostly Minus Females)

I have watched Pixar’s Up twice: the 3D, more expensive version, and the 2D version…in Russian, of which I understand only a little. Don’t ask me how I came to see it in Russian, because I won’t tell. What I will say is that this film is immensely charming and beautifully crafted—demonstrative of the impeccable standard of animation we have come to expect from Pixar. I will also say that for all of its charm, I found a few small faults with the film.
Up begins in the black and white world of the intrepid aviator-adventurer Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer). It’s black and white because we are watching an old film, along with young Carl Fredrickson clad in his own little aviator goggles. When we run into Charles Muntz later in a world of vivid color, the story still paints things in black and white, only now, it introduces shades of gray as well.
Carl is a dreamer whose head often pokes into the clouds. When he meets Ellie, a girl whose zeal for adventure matches, even surpasses his own, we can tell right away that they are meant to be together forever.
They fall in love, marry, and turn a dilapidated old building into the house of their dreams.
In a wordless sequence that reminded me of the exquisitely-rendered robot romance of WALL-E and EVE, we watch Carl and Ellie soar and whirl, and their love seems just right. Their life together seems just right. While the love scene in WALL-E was far more elegant and aesthetic, the warmth of Carl and Ellie’s love is only possible among human beings.
But dreaming gives way to reality.
Ellie’s scrapbook of far away destinations (which they pledge to visit together) gets shelved when flat tires, hospital visits, and house repairs suck up their savings. They face more disappointments together, and then, when their dark hair gives way to gray, Ellie becomes sick and doesn’t come home.
Carl, now an old man, shuts the world out. He becomes a curmudgeon who won’t see people. City grows up around his one-time dream house, and threatens to force him to give it up. However, Carl, formerly a balloon vendor at the zoo, escapes by launching his house into the sky tied to thousands of brightly-colored balloons.
The house of his dreams becomes a vehicle that will carry him toward the unfulfilled dreams that Ellie left behind in her scrapbook. Their scrapbook. For Carl, it is the opportunity to realize the desire that has always eluded him. But what he didn’t count on is the company of a rolly polly boy scout stuck on the porch during liftoff.
As the flying house drifts over cities and fields toward some far off place, Russell, the young stowaway, proves to be as fun as he is a nuisance. Cranky Carl is at times beside himself with the unwanted guest.
When the house makes landfall, a strange new place spreads out in front of them in which danger lurks in unexpected places, but where unlikely rescuers emerge out from the dense, tropical undergrowth. We discover that Carl’s childhood hero, Charles Muntz, has already found this place, and that he is not as the movies portrayed him.
Amid adventure, danger, tedium and bravado, Carl and Russell forge a relationship that seems almost bizarre for a crotchety old man and a clumsy young scout whom fate has tossed together. But then in far off places, we should expect bizarre things to happen, as they continue to do.
Up is a dialogue-driven film, the extent of which I discovered when I watched it again in Russian. Yet even without, or maybe especially without language, the people at Pixar are so adept at telling stories nonverbally.
We sense trouble before it arrives when the screen darkens, and we suspect things will turn out alright as light begins creeping back onto the horizon. The music score narrates the story as much as the dialogue does, and we can tell from the sounds all around us what is happening even before we can see where the sounds come from.
There is not much in the film to complain about—it is brilliantly done and of the highest artistic quality. But, as Linda Holmes notes in her NPR review of Up, Dear Pixar, From All The Girls With Band-Aids On Their Knees, it is a man’s world with male characters who do mostly manly things. The film’s only female character, the fabulously buoyant Ellie, leaves the story in the first fifteen minutes. Russell the boy scout appears to be Asian American, which is a first for a Pixar main character. When can we expect a female in the lead?
Up is a family movie with grown up themes. Sometimes startlingly so. Its story is about many things: companionship, devotion to people and to dreams, about loss and about discovery, about adventure and every-day heroics. But mostly, it’s a story that depicts how rich life is when shared in community, whatever size that community might be, and however strange its members.
It comes as no surprise that Ebert and Roeper give it two thumbs…ya, you guessed it.
Jessica Sharpe writes from Chattanooga, Tennessee where she studies theater and speech at UTC.

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