Consider the curmudgeon. There's a shorthand for this character, particularly in Hollywood: the proverbial cranky old man, living alone, growling at change. Occasionally he shakes a hairy fist at it, or brandishes a cane. Think Walter Matthau in his later films, or W.C. Fields' entire career. This is usually played for comic effect; we laugh at the curmudgeon because we know the world is not as bad as he thinks it is, because his perspective is that of a sort of a time traveler, an alien. Age has made him into an Other.
With Up, Pixar gives us Carl, a curmudgeonly sort of fellow. But rather than presenting him to us with his square-jawed scowl and gravel-voiced hostility fully formed, we first see Carl as a speechless, round-faced little boy, enraptured by the exploits of his hero, explorer Charles Muntz. Carl is walking inarticulated sensawunda, and we love him for that. We love that he finds a friend named Ellie, who shares his fondness for goggles and flight caps as well as his enthusiasm for Muntz and his airship Spirit of Adventure. Ellie also talks enough for both of them, and is prone to exclamations like "I will bring it back . . . for SCIENCE!" She pins a grape soda badge on Carl to welcome him into her explorers club, and shares a scrapbook filled with the places she hopes to go. Above all, she hopes to have a house beside Paradise Falls (in South America, which is "like America . . . only south").
It's clear that part of the reason that Carl and Ellie become such fast friends is the fact that she is able to give voice to his fantasies of travel and discovery in a way that he himself cannot. And in Carl, Ellie sees a steady and serious partner who might actually be able to make those fantasies reality.
So how do we get from Carl the wide-eyed explorer to Carl the curmudgeon? Carl and Ellie grow up, fall in love, get married. And in one of the film's most heart-breaking moments, they try to start a family, only to lose the child. It's not a new thing for Pixar to make stealth movies for adults in the guise of children's stories, but there is something particularly daring about Up's opening minutes: we see a dream deferred, we see loss and disappointment, and just when Carl is ready to give his bride and best friend what she has always wanted—that trip to Paradise Falls—we see her fall ill, and we see him lose her.
Perhaps the riskiest of these choices is that of removing Ellie from the story; it's her presence that brings Carl and the film to life, and once she's gone the film has to essentially restart itself. (I know I'm not alone in hoping that Pixar will give Ellie, or some facsimile thereof, her own story in the near future.) If Up has a downside, it's that the remainder of the film rarely reaches the gleeful heights or the poignant depths of its opening ten minutes. A concessions worker at the theater (always the most unforgiving of critics) was overheard to remark that the second half was "just a kid's movie." That's a bit harsh, but it's true that there is a feeling that most of the risks are being taken up front, and that as technically adept and entertaining as the rest of the film is (Pixar has set the bar so high that at this point we expect nothing less), it's emotionally front-loaded.
If this is a kid's movie, then, there must be a kid; the opening guarantees that we will sympathize with Carl, but it's perhaps a bit much to expect the target market to look at him and see themselves. For that we have Russell, a Wilderness Explorer reminiscent both of the chubby younger Carl and loveable motormouth Ellie. Russell is hilariously earnest and good-hearted, the holder of numerous merit badges in wilderness skills despite never having been to the wilderness. (He is also clearly Asian, a fact which the film never mentions, but a non-trivial matter given that there was nothing stopping Pixar from plugging a generic white kid into the role.) When Carl launches his house into the sky tethered to hundreds of helium balloons, Russell becomes an unintentional stowaway and an effortless comic foil.
For a brief time the house is a vehicle, a symbol of both freedom and comfort carrying Carl towards the fruition of the dreams he shared with Ellie. But after passing through a massive storm and coming down amid the rock formations near Paradise Falls, it becomes something to be towed around, an emotional weight that Carl will not let go. The metaphors are unsubtle but apt; to Carl, Ellie still inhabits the house, and he is as desperate to bring her to an appropriate resting place as he is unwilling to let go of her.
Obstructing Carl's simple quest are his sudden guardianship of Russell, a giant mother-bird named Kevin, and a talking dog (a dog with a talking collar, to be precise) named Dug. These companions provide the film's emotional punctuation marks; Dug's hope for acceptance in the pack, Kevin's desperation to return to her young, and Russell's struggle to deal with his parents' separation. In a quietly heartbreaking scene, he and Carl sit sheltered from a Venezuelan rainstorm by the low-hanging house, and it becomes clear that much of Russell's drive to excel as a Wilderness Explorer comes from a desire to reconnect with his inattentive father.
It's not until this scene that Carl begins to step outside his own pain and recapture a bit of the boy who was open to anything. He's in the midst of an adventure, but is slow to recognize it. And every ingredient for adventure is here—airships, swordfights, dogfights (in more than one sense), storms and chases and hair's-breadth escapes. Up is a bright, exuberant film, despite (or perhaps because of) its moments of sadness. The laughs are all the more satisfying since, by the film's end, we are neither laughing at Carl nor being laughed at by him; the endpoint of his emotional journey is not to win or lose in his battle against the world but to let it into his life, to accept that he can have adventure and family even after loss. A simple lesson, true, but one that we are forever having to relearn.
David J. Schwartz lives among the other St. Paulites, largely hidden from their view. He's not hitchhiking anymore, he's riding!