Monday, June 22, 2009


Although Up (2009) is not the best film of the year, as some have suggested, it is well made and entertaining. The film begins with a maudlin review of the main character Carl’s life—his yen for adventure, his meeting as a young boy the girl who would become his wife (she too loves adventure and idolizes the same explorer he does). They marry and discover they cannot have children. As solace they plan to travel, to live that adventurous life they had imagined as children, but one thing happens and then another and their plans never get off the ground. They grow old, she sickens and dies, and he is left alone in the house they shared for all their lives. Once in the country, now it is surrounded by skyscrapers. A soulless developer (he looks almost like an alien) wants to take it over and raze it for another skyscraper. Carl has a run in with construction workers, and a judge orders him to move to a retirement home, where he can be looked after.

This is heavy stuff for a film aimed (at least in part) at children. It made me long for a cup of the old hemlock. People near me were weeping by the time we reached the death of Carl’s wife.

But the tone quickly and abruptly changes. Carl has rigged his house with thousands of helium balloons. He inflates them, the house breaks free, and he is off on a quest to find Paradise Falls, the remote South American location that he and his wife had dreamed of visiting. Along the way we encounter a rotund and irritating cub scout, a talking dog (a pack of talking dogs, in fact), a zeppelin, a famous lost explorer, a thunderstorm, a fabled bird the size of a giant ostrich, and so on. The remainder of the film is replete with the action and dangerous moments and hairbreadth escapes you would escape from this kind of entertainment. The old man bonds with the Cub Scout (abandoned by his parents) and with the talking dog and with the giant colorful bird. Despite old age and infirmity, Carl becomes remarkably energetic and agile, running and jumping, and in general acting half his age. He has his great adventure. He learns that his life isn’t over yet, and he finds reason to go on.

The trouble with this film is, of course, that things are not so simple. Old people left alone by death and poverty and time’s passage and infirmity can’t easily find escape through fantasies and floating houses and adventure. Most of them remain alone. Most abandoned or ignored children don’t find elderly substitutes.

With its sudden and dramatic change in tone, with its shallow solution to the problems of the old, Up is a bit dishonest. At the same time, the animation is stunning (in the conventional fashion of Disney/Pixar), and the film is a pleasure to watch. I saw it in 3-D—the effects were impressive for the first five minutes, after which I didn’t notice them.

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