The Spirit of Adventure: Pixar’s “Up”

The motion picture Up is the sole property of Pixar and Walt Disney Pictures. All images are screencaps taken from my own DVD copy. No copyright infringement is intended by the use of these pictures.

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Wouldn’t you love to escape the world? When life gets too busy, too complicated, too noisy, too distracting, who wouldn’t wish they could somehow just lift themselves off the ground and soar above it all?

Carl Fredricksen does just that.

As a little boy, he thrills to the stories of Charles F. Muntz, famed explorer and airman. He runs around with his goggled helmet and balloon while letting his imagination take him to new heights of playtime. And then he meets Ellie, a little girl who has the same passion for Muntz as he does, even to the point of creating a two-person club and pretending a dilapidated house is really Muntz’s dirigible Spirit of Adventure. Soon, Carl comes to realize that he and Ellie share something very special: hopes and dreams. She reveals to him her plan to travel to Paradise Falls in South America, the last known location of Muntz, who left to prove that his discovery of a new bird skeleton was not a fraud. Ellie even has a scrapbook, “My Adventure Book”, with pages marked for “Stuff I’m Going To Do”. And she makes Carl promise to take them there no matter what. After all, it’s like Muntz says: “Adventure is out there.”

The years pass. Carl and Ellie share a whole life together, moving into that dilapidated old clubhouse and fixing it up good as new. Getting by with Carl’s job as a balloon salesman. Building a nursery—only to be told by doctors that Ellie cannot have children. Saving up coins in a jar for their trip to Paradise Falls—only to have life circumstances force them to dip into the fund again and again. Carl and Ellie grow old together, as married couples should, only for Carl to realize that he has never made good on his promise to take them on their grand adventure. Ellie dies before he can accomplish this goal.

The world has become noisier and busier since Carl was a boy. They’re building a mall all around the little wooden house, and like many an old codger Carl refuses to sell. The real estate agents are hounding him, the retirement home is breathing down his back. There’s only one place left to go.

And that’s up.

Up is Pixar’s tenth feature film, and it continues the studio’s amazing record of financial, critical, and creative successes. This last criteria is important; it’s so easy for any artist to rest on their laurels after early achievement and from there on produce standard, run-of-the-mill stories that challenge and threaten no one—least of all themselves. Pixar has fortunately done just the opposite and managed to stretch its early achievements into what will surely be remembered as its own Golden Age when the history of the studio comes to be written. We’re still in the midst of it, and all of us are the richer.

The key to any great story is twofold: its ability to draw you into itself and experience the tale with all your emotions and senses involved, and also its expression of the human condition. That’s a big literary term that gets thrown about so often it seems to have lost all meaning. In my modest way I’ll attempt to restore that meaning by defining the human condition as the experience of being alive as a human. Everything we go through as ordinary people—love, fear, hatred, parenthood, childhood, envy, even death itself—are all part of the human condition. Many of those words I just used encompass emotions; they can also often be used to define the themes of various stories. A story can be about love, about fear, and all the rest. These things that we say a story is about are also used to define a story’s theme or themes. Thus, in essence, every story is about the human condition (which should be patently obvious when you think about who the story is being told by and for: human beings) and the human condition is always the theme. But it’s the great ones that simultaneously express their themes in a timeless way and engage those same emotions in the audience, be they readers or viewers.

Themes rarely make themselves readily apparent on a first viewing or reading. If they do, it can sometimes be an indicator that not everything is quite right; but at the same time there’s a tendency to bury themes under a pile of metaphor and symbolism that make the audience dig too deep for too little gain. A great story like Up has to tread the fine line of subtlety between preachiness and esotericism. And if there’s any group of filmmakers who are masters of subtlety, it’s the gang at Pixar. With Up, they’ve given us a story that’s as much about learning to find adventure in the little things in life as well as providing an exciting big one.

Theme is always best expressed through characters, because no matter who or what they are, they always need to be very human for the audience to connect with them. In this story there are three primary ones, and they all have one thing in common: a goal to achieve that seems more important to them than anything else.

Carl’s motivation for taking his house to the sky is essentially a noble one. He made his promise to Ellie, complete with a “cross your heart”, and he intends to keep that promise one way or another. She may be dead, but she’s hardly gone from his life, and this is the last way he knows to honour her memory. He holds onto this goal so tightly that the house itself becomes a symbol for Ellie, right down to her picture hanging on the wall and the chairs the two of them sat in. Even her child’s dream of the house as a flying machine is made a reality by the thousands of balloons. In due course, Carl literally becomes tied to it by the garden hose, dragging it along as both the last thing he has to live for and the one thing that’s weighing him down.

Russell the boy scout is the polar opposite of Carl, which makes him such a wonderful foil. He’s young and Carl’s not, obviously. He’s a bundle of energy where Carl moves slowly and creakily. But he too has his own all-important goal: the attainment of his Assisting The Elderly badge and subsequent graduation to Senior Wilderness Explorer. It eventually comes out that his father “isn’t around very much” to teach him how to really pitch a tent or survive in the outdoors and he has faith that if he accomplishes this one thing, maybe his dad will be prouder of him. Russell’s boy scout image echoes Ellie’s Muntz appreciation club in which she included Carl; she even had homemade badges decorating the front of her overalls much like Russell’s sash, and one of those badges still sits on Carl’s jacket throughout the movie. Even Russell’s adoption of Kevin the bird has a kind of precedence in Ellie, who kept a small wooden bird on the mantelpiece of the house; in a late scene in the movie, we see a picture of her as a child with a handwritten declaration: “found a pigeon! His name is Herbert.”

Carl and Russell unexpectedly meet Charles F. Muntz himself, also grown old and still trying to find the proof that his skeleton of an unknown species of bird was not a fake—and a live specimen has just arrived, care of these two unlikely fellow travellers, in the form of Kevin. Muntz is very much the dark version of Carl. He too is obsessed with his own selfish goal, but to the point where it has somewhat unbalanced his mind; he suspects Carl and Russell of coming to South America to stop him, just as he apparently suspected and dealt with others he’s met before. He becomes the villain of the piece by overreacting to his unfulfilled goal in much the same way that Carl does, just in a different area of the spectrum. One could even go so far to say that it isn’t entirely accurate to label Muntz a dark version of Carl—Carl has his own darkness. His goal of reaching Paradise Falls seems like an act of love on the surface, and perhaps it began that way, but it becomes tainted by Carl’s selfishness in trying to fulfill it. When it comes to a choice between saving Kevin from being captured by Muntz and saving the house from burning, he chooses the house and sacrifices both the harmless bird and Russell’s friendship. “This is none of my concern,” he says in a fit of anger. “I didn’t ask for any of this!”

This tainting of a cherished dream is made apparent in the very next scenes, where Carl and Russell (who has no choice but to tag along) reach Paradise Falls. From afar it looked like heaven. Up close it’s a desolate wasteland with some water running through the rocks. When Carl finally reenters his home, everything is in chaos from being tossed around. It’s quiet, peaceful. Empty.

This being a Pixar movie, it has exactly what every “sophisticated” modern critic despises: a happy ending. Such things may not appeal to everyone, and indeed I don’t feel they’re always essential to a good story. But if it can be done right, I’m all for it. Pixar always seems to deliver very satisfying conclusions for their stories, never forcing the sweetness down people’s throats and always making them feel honestly heartfelt. The strongest moment in the final act of the film comes when Carl sits down at his chair, Ellie’s still empty (except for Russell’s sash, a nice visual touch), and begins to turn the pages of her old scrapbook. He sees the pictures and mementos he has obviously looked at a thousand times before, and it’s almost by accident that he discovers something new. The pages marked “Stuff I’m Going To Do” that were once left empty have been filled…with photographs and memories of Carl and Ellie’s life together. She’s even left a little note for him:

“Thanks for the adventure—now go have a new one! Love, Ellie.”

And he does exactly that. Russell takes off after Kevin and Muntz, and Carl must follow. But the balloons have lost most of their helium and to get the house going again will mean an extra dose of metaphor. Carl begins to literally pour out everything he’s held onto in his life, along with his furniture and possessions, to lighten the load and once again go up—but not without a final tribute to the original dream, in the form of the two chairs placed carefully beside each other overlooking the falls. In the course of the final battle with Muntz, the once famous explorer pays for his single-mindedness with a plunge from his dirigible. Carl also pays something of a price, though it’s one he seems content with. The house, the last burden, floats away into the clouds and Carl says his last goodbye to Ellie. At Russell’s Wilderness Explorer graduation ceremony, he pins on not the Assisting The Elderly badge, but Ellie’s homemade club pin (appropriately filling the gap over Russell’s heart). In doing so, he essentially greets his new adventure of becoming a father figure to Russell. The film ends with a warm sunset…in Paradise Falls, with the house resting peacefully right where Carl and Ellie dreamed it would go.

Is it a literal representation? Did the house actually come to rest there? Or is it meant to be taken as a visual metaphor for Carl’s journey, in its original spirit of love and adventure, being completed?

You decide.

Our time on Earth is precious. We all grow old, we all die. We need to cherish what we are given in life, the little things that give us joy and hope and love in the here and now, and to cherish above all the people we share these experiences with. That is where the real spirit of adventure is found.

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