Pixar’s animated feature Up is the tale of Carl Fredricksen, a grumpy old man who is living out golden years that are considerably less golden than he had hoped for. His wife of many years, Ellie, has passed away, and the home they lived in together is the last house on his block that hasn’t sold out to skyscraper developers. When Carl is forced to abandon his home, he engineers a way to lift the entire house off the ground with a huge collection of helium balloons. Once airborne, he intends to fulfil a life-long dream to go see the wilds of South America, something he and Ellie always wanted to do, but never could. However, Carl discovers that an annoyingly chipper Wilderness Scout named Russell has accidentally stowed away in Carl’s house, which results in a kind of Odd Couple situation as the pair float thousands of miles from home on a genuine adventure in the style of the long-lost explorer, Charles Muntz. Carl and Russel land at Paradise Falls, where Muntz went missing decades ago in search of a huge exotic bird. As Carl struggles with letting his grumpiness get the better of him, he and Russell encounter a specimen of the bird named Kevin, a talking dog named Dug, and what remains of Muntz’s expedition. Things quickly go sideways, of course, and the adventure becomes a real crisis that forces Carl to step up to his heroic potential, as well as figure out how to extend friendship to somebody other than his long-dead wife.
This is a Pixar movie, so it’s just a brilliant thing from start to finish, with a witty, engaging, funny story driven by state-of-the-art computer animation that uses all of its qualities to deliver a kind of visual splendor that informs our emotions rather than stuns our senses. You look at any Pixar movie, but Up in particular, and you get a master class in how one might use visual imagery to drive the finest qualities of a great story. And along the way, this movie will get you right in the feels more than once. That is also a reliable quality of any Pixar effort, but Up has one scene in particular that stands apart as a masterpiece even if you only ever saw it and nothing of the rest of the movie.
I’m speaking, of course, of the first 10 minutes, in which we get Carl’s origin story. It shows us how he meets Ellie when they’re both little kids who dream of going on a Muntz-like adventure. We see them get married and we watch as their long life together plays out, with its highs and lows, and the inevitable heartbreak of one having to say goodbye to the other. The scene ends with Carl returning home from having buried his beloved Ellie, and it fades to black, the movie’s prologue finally at an end. I’m not crying. You’re crying.
For the rest of the movie, we see Carl as I’ve previously described him, a super-cranky mashup of Walter Matthau and Spencer Tracy who, rather telling the world to get the hell off his lawn, just leaves the world behind. Carl’s crustiness is a major driving force in the story, and sometimes it wears a little thin, but when it does, we are reminded exactly why he’s like this, and we understand. He’s never explained his heartache to anyone. When we see him living with Ellie, he’s not a jerk. He’s a simple guy who sold balloons at the zoo and who married a wonderful woman who brightened his life in a million different ways.
And then, one day, she was gone.
Grief makes you question three things. First, it makes you question your sense of self. How much of me is left, now that this person who meant so much to me is gone? Second, it makes you question your sense of control. How much in my life can I really control, now that I see how things that matter so much to me can disappear at a moment’s notice? Third, it makes you question what you really believe. How true is my covenant with the Almighty, and how I see matters of life, death, and what it all means?
Carl is so angry because he never figured out the answer to that first question, let alone the other two. He never even imagined he would have to. And the poor guy’s whole world is just turned upside down. Pixar took a common foil—the cranky old man—and delivered it with the kind of humanity it deserves. I cried a river when I first saw the lives of Carl and Ellie play out on the screen, and it still gets me every time. If we’re lucky, we will find that person who makes our world whole. But one day, there must be a goodbye, as heartbreaking as that must be. Life can go on afterwards, though. Love can persist. Perhaps in a different form, but we can still love after the ones we hold most dear have gone from our sight. Those who love us and have departed would have us do nothing less.
Up isn’t entirely about that. But that moment of truth rings so clearly, that 50 years from now, if I’m still around to talk about movies, and somebody asks me about this one, I might forget every other detail about the movie. But I sure won’t forget its moment of truth. I sure won’t forget Carl and Ellie.