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Up: The ninety-minute masterpiece

Pixar's "Up" is not a talking-dog movie, but a profound meditation on childhood and change (MARK YORK/The Stanford Daily).

It has been ten years since the premiere of Pixar’s “Up,” and I’m feeling old.

Putting aside my personal age-related crises, however, this has always been a special movie for me. I was charmed when I first saw it in theaters, falling in love with the imaginative concept of an elderly man tying balloons to his house and flying away. And don’t tell me, dear reader, that you never thought of doing the same.

I am not the only one to sing this film’s praises. “Up” is recognized as a stand-out in Pixar’s already much-acclaimed repertoire, becoming the second animated film to be nominated for “Best Picture” (and still, might I add, a better pick than “Green Book”). This movie is a beloved classic, but there is a common piece of criticism toward “Up” that’s not entirely unwarranted.

“The first ten minutes” the critic concedes, “are among the best of cinema, but the rest of the film doesn’t live up to it. Honestly… I think the film is overrated.”

And yes, I very reluctantly admit, there is undeniably a shift in the movie. The first ten minutes excel as a marvel of storyboarding, telling a touching and tragic tale about the death of a spouse — all without dialogue. The rest of the film, however, is the very definition of goofy, animated adventure. Somehow, we go from an adult, realistic exploration of love and loss, to flying real-estate, child sidekicks, villainous talking dogs and googly-eyed birds with the color scheme of a laffy-taffy burial. I can only imagine reading the Wikipedia summary.

It’s easy to see where the critic is coming from. Suddenly, we have delved into a different, seemingly more shallow movie. However, I am nothing if not nosy and I shall not let such opinions stand without squeezing into the matter myself. “Up” is a masterpiece from beginning to end, thriving not in spite of but because of its tonal shift.

To better understand what I mean, let us examine our protagonist. The Carl Fredricksen we see at the beginning of the movie is different from the Carl Fredricksen ten minutes later.

Initially, Carl is introduced as a shy, imaginative kid who meets the adventurous and extroverted Ellie, and as they grow up and get married, they maintain their dream of exploring Paradise Falls. Still, Carl is depicted as a soft-spoken but happy man, not unlike his child self. Their dream is never realized when Ellie passes away, changing our hero and collectively traumatizing a whole generation of parents who thought they were just taking their kids to a talking-dog movie.

Now, we get the second, elderly Carl. Reclusive and bitter, all he wants to do is hold on to his late wife’s memory. This transformation tells us everything we need to know about the journey to come. Carl’s childhood wonder is lost, and he must reclaim it.

His journey to Paradise Falls, though not outright introspective as the critic might wish, is a clear representation of that. The house, the destination, the balloons; nearly everything about what Carl chooses to do, or what he chooses to surround himself with, is a callback to happier days. Of course the movie develops a rosier tint because he’s living out childhood dreams.

Imagine if, instead of cartoonish antics or fantastical sights, the movie had Carl brood in the jungle for the next two hours, making Hamlet-esque soliloquies about death and meaning. It would be “adult,” sure. That might win the hearts of stuffy Academy members too. But the moviegoing audience would not relate nearly as much to his plights and decisions.

The goofy, fantastical elements of “Up” are not, as many critics claim, mindlessly wedged into the film. They are incorporated carefully in order to illustrate our protagonist’s state of mind. But if these aforementioned, Verne-esque qualities highlight wonder, then the harm of clinging to the past is emphasized by this movie’s oft-criticized villain: Charles Muntz.

Muntz, according to critics (and even some fans), seems like a last-minute, unnecessary addition, haphazardly plastered onto the film to fill the obligatory villain checkbox. On the surface, the critic might have a point. Muntz is earlier introduced as Carl and Ellie’s childhood idol, who returns despite being well over 100 years old (dermatologists hate him). Like Carl, Muntz seeks to relive his glory days, but is willing to intimidate, manipulate, and murder in order to do it. He is a standard antagonist, hardly more complex than the typical Indiana Jones adversary. This contrasts significantly with the first ten minutes — think of it as eating a Big Mac after eating at a fancy restaurant. But symbolically, this character is highly significant, especially considering how he relates to our hero’s development.

The deterioration of his childhood hero represents a distortion in Carl’s worldview. A symbol of the past, seen initially by our hero as a safe escape, has turned destructive and must be defeated. Muntz is an antagonistic representation of our hero’s internal struggle. And while some say that this movie could be easily rewritten without a villain, replacing Muntz with perhaps a deeper look into Carl’s psyche, I would make this distinction: Just because it is possible, does not mean it is the best decision. “Up” is a movie about reclaiming childhood whimsy, and what better way to represent that than beating an over-the-top baddie?

If this journey is about Carl letting go of the past, then Russell — arguably this movie’s most controversial inclusion — represents the acceptance of the future.

Yes, child-sidekick Russell, the boy who literally shows up on our hero’s doorstep. He is loud, immature and optimistic, an embodiment of the movie’s new childish, goofier tone. Russell’s presence in the film is startling compared to the film prior, and while I understand the backlash, that is the point. While at the beginning of the movie, Carl rejects this strange, juvenile child, by the end he accepts Russell as family, and finds fulfillment through this new bond. The sudden change in feel needs to be abrupt, it needs to be alien … in order to once again relate to our protagonist’s journey, we need to see this present through Carl’s perspective.

Russell is the key to Carl’s quest. There is a scene that perfectly exemplifies this before the end of the climax. Russell is kidnapped, numerous balloons have been lost and the house is landlocked. Carl cannot find happiness rotting away in his old house, and only when he discards all his furniture — literally throwing away mementos of his past — can he make the house float and save the boy. This, right here, sums up the themes of “Up,” and it would not have worked if there wasn’t such a stark, tonal shift between the first ten minutes (Carl’s past) and the rest of the film (Carl’s future).

Do not test me, reader, I shall maintain this argument till the bitter end! The most childish and (according to some) shoehorned elements of “Up” are most important in showing our protagonist’s developing perspective. It is for these reasons that “Up” is a 90-minute masterpiece, and not a single minute less.

But, if readers find this analysis inadequate, I would encourage them to follow the Carl Fredricksen school of logic … that is, to tie their newspapers to a balloon and send off to who-knows-where. 

Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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