Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Nine

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#9 — Up (Pete Docter with Bob Peterson, 2009)
Let’s start where everyone starts in discussing Up, with the sequence that seemingly inspires universal agreement about its excellence. With just a few minutes of screen-time, Pete Docter and Bob Peterson lovingly depict the arc of an adult life, or, more precisely, a pair of adult lives intertwined. The marriage of Carl and Ellie Fredericksen is glimpsed in a few brief moments scattered over their years together: picnics on a hill, maintaining their home, making plans for the future and watching as fate, sometimes unkindly, changes those plans. With inspired economy and an absence of dialogue, fully drawn people emerge and we come to understand them deeply–their joys, disappointments, humble accomplishments, and little compromises that accumulate until entire dreams have been consigned to deep storage on the uppermost shelf of the closet. This passage does not stand out just because of its profound artistry, its note-perfect encapsulation of the pieces that make up a person’s passage across the years. It doesn’t stand out because it is unique. In fact, quite the opposite is true. It exemplifies everything rewarding about the approach common to films issued under the Pixar banner–the investment in character, the tender understanding of human emotion, the commitment to visual storytelling–to such a degree that it serves as a fresh evidence that the group of creators that sign their name to the studio’s product collectively stand as the finest, most consistent filmmakers working at the dawn of the 21st century.

While entertaining, bright and ultimately hopeful, the film begins with melancholy as Carl, now elderly and alone, is suffering as a busy, indifferent world literally closes in on him. Inspired by a childhood pledge, and bolstered by his occupational experience with helium-filled diversions, Carl figures out a way to affix enough colorful balloons to the andirons of his fireplace to lift his clapboard house toward the heavens, bound by air for South America and the promise of adventure. That is fanciful and strangely inspiring all on its own, something that could serve as the grand ending to another film. Here it is just the beginning, leading into a plot that sets Carl, accompanied by a stowaway scout and a communicative canine, off to confront his boyhood hero, who’s evolved into a megalomaniacal poacher. Docter and Peterson, who are also the credited screenwriters, get every last possibility out of the material they set into motion, taking special glee at the ability they’ve afforded themselves to both defy gravity and use it as the greatest danger their characters face.

The computer animation makes them the absolute masters of everything within the frame, a responsibility they fulfill with striking design work and incredible attention to detail. The characters carry some of their personality with them in their respective visual designs from the series of squat blocks that make up Carl to the rounded, rolling energy of his youthful companion, Russell, to the battalion of dogs they eventually encounter, all of them constructed to convey some facet of who they are and how they fit into the story. What’s more, within those designs and the imagery they move amidst, there is a broad mass of information, all of it lovingly rendered. When hundreds of balloons emerge from the chimney of Carl’s home like a multicolored cloud, the way they move, shift, bob and flow into place it is a lush spectacle, but one that is meant to convince just as assuredly as it is designed to dazzle. When the abode held aloft casts a shadow on the streets below, the patches of colorful light thrown down by the balloons move with it, a trail of translucent beauty. The animators have clearly thought about how that would look, and, even though we only see it for a fleeting moment, made sure it was depicted exactly right. It’s bits and pieces like that, and the care that goes into them, that amass to make the film gripping and oddly believable. Up may be rife with wild invention, but it also follows the rules it establishes. It never cheats. It asks us to believe that a house can fly, but also allows that a house has weight, and popping some of those balloons will have an impact.

Thematically, the film operates as a set of fascinating contradictions. Carl follows through on the deferred conquest of the outside world, striking out for the imposing, distant waterfall that represented his beloved Ellie’s ideal, but he does so from the safety of his own residence, literally taking his house with him as he travels. Then there is the simple, disarmingly sweet message that the best way to find one’s self is to look outside, spotting the inherent truisms of one’s own person in the reflection of someone else’s eyes, or, more importantly, someone else’s heart. Carl accomplishes this with young Russell, but he’d also had that with Ellie, from the moment they met as kids and her rapid verbal cascades helped fill up his silences, completed his very thoughts, flooded his imagination, made him better. One of the great achievements of Up is that Ellie is a bold character that is vividly present throughout the entire film, even though she is not seen after the first few minutes. She is there in the pages of a scrapbook, in the memories encased within a home, in the parts of Carl that give him the strength to get past his hesitancy and his curmudgeonly disinterest in those around him. Indeed, the most moving aspect of Up is watching Carl come to the realization that Ellie may be gone, but she will always be with him.

This is all proffered up with elegance and insight. The mechanics of narrative that are simultaneously the simplest and the most rewarding are used by Docter and Peterson like highly familiar tools, like a hammer in the hand of a lifelong carpenter. Details that initially seem to have little purpose beyond getting a laugh or revealing something about a character prove to have greater value as the film progresses. The character dynamics are well thought out, and remain true from beginning to end, developing notably but naturally. The film becomes radical through reasserting the fundamentals of cinematic storytelling. It reminds us that, for all the toil and energy that goes into generating emotional responses in moviegoers, often the greatest impact can come from a single image if the necessary work has been done to give that image weight, even (or especially) if that image is of nothing more than a bottle cap pinned to a shirt.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)