My favorite movie character of the year is Ellie Fredericksen. Ellie doesn’t get much screen time in Up. She’s seen as a little girl, playing pretend in an old house, talking about the world and all its potential wonders with an enthusiastic fearlessness that utterly beguiles a young boy named Carl. From there, we see her life proceed with Carl, whom she marries and works beside at the local zoo, their years together depicted in a beautifully conceived and rendered dialogue-free montage that carries them through an entire life of togetherness, affection, modest comforts, compromises and sorrow. Then Ellie dies, living Carl an elderly widower, plodding back to the new solitude of the house they shared together. This happens probably no more than ten minutes into the film. Ellie is gone, and we in the audience never heard her speak a single word in her adult voice. And yet she remains, fully present throughout the rest of the film, as Carl defies his pending loss of their residence by binding a bounty of balloons to the andirons of the fireplace, thereby lifting the entire structure skyward on a mission to reach the South American paradise that Ellie always dreamed of visiting. She’s there as Carl begrudgingly befriends a youthful stowaway and a small crew of animals that communicate in surprising ways, eventually finding a fatherly, protective side of himself. Most movingly, she’s there as Carl overcomes his own natural reticence, moves past his sadness to embrace life and the continuing uncertainty of an existence that offers endless possibilities. She’s not there as some beatific, spectral presence, murmuring loving advice to Carl, as she certainly could be thanks to the casual movie magic that is only more limitless in the hands of crafty computer animators. She is there because we feel the lasting hold she has on Carl. She is there because the mementos and memories of the life she lived. She is there because when we lose someone, they linger with us, they remain a part of our thoughts and our hearts. They still shape who we are, and who we want to be. Lots of movies deal in grief because it is a shortcut to building emotional power. Up deals with grief as realistically and honestly as any film I can think of, showing how it is a pathway to an enduring appreciation of the person who’s gone. This is a sombre accomplishment within a film that is anything but. Up is as filled with adventure and buoyant comedy as any of its inspired siblings from the splendid creative factory of Pixar. Director Pete Docter and his co-director Bob Peterson keep the intricate plotting straight and tell their story in vivid fashion, building everything upon a remarkable depth of character. The artistry of animated film directors sometimes gets discounted because, in a criticism that is bafflingly counter-intuitive, they have so much more control over every detail of their films than their live-action counterparts. With Up, Docter demonstrates that control is an opportunity that turns into a duty. Something unerringly great can be created, something that represents masterly storytelling, something that honors with focused attention every character on screen. Even those characters that are only on screen for the briefest amount of time.
(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)