Sadie Rose returns to her series of watching movies with her young daughter with her review of Up, “a funny and beautiful way to start a conversation with your children about death.”
10 years ago, I had multiple friends suggest I see Up. “It’s so good. You’ll cry in the first 10 minutes.” Which I thought was a ridiculous prediction because I was not a huge cry-during-movies kinda person and, although I believe in the power of storytelling, I didn’t expect a cartoon to touch on universal truths. 10 years ago, I talked my then-boyfriend into watching it and, about 10 minutes in, we were both trying to hide the fact that we were crying. Ugly crying. When we caught each other’s eyes, I said something incredibly deep like, “What the fuck is this bullshit?!?” And he said something equally poignant: “Life?” Then we busted up laughing.
We are now married with two kids, and it was one of those moments in our early years that helped us become more vulnerable and closer to each other. We were both torn up but somehow laughing through the tears. It moved us forward. In 10 years, we’ve shared a lot of tears and laughs and sometimes, still, one can lead to the other. Over the years, I’ve also discovered he doesn’t love sitting down to watch a movie as much as I do. He thinks they are too long. 10 years ago he humored me because of Up’s short, 90-minute viewing time. So for this viewing I roped my seven-year-old into watching it with me. She has never seen it before and I’m trying to raise her to love movies as much as I do. So far, my devious plot is working, and I get great content for these 10 year ago reviews. (I included her comments in parentheses and quotes for your reading entertainment.)
Up is a classic hero’s journey over five acts. Our hero is called to action and meets an unlikely mentor who helps him along his journey. He encounters unique characters who seem to slow his progress but are actually helping him along his path. He is forced to make a choice and returns home transformed. Which is so formulaic, but Bob Peterson and Pete Docter succeed in using the structure to tell a poignant story about love, loss, and moving forward. Let’s break it down into its five acts.
In act one, we meet Carl and Ellie. (“Is this about kids or a grandfather? I thought it was about a grandfather.”) They are children who bond over their shared hero, an adventurer named Charles Muntz. We watch them become friends, get married, buy their dream home, try to start a family, and the loss of that adventure. We watch as they try to fulfill their childhood dream of seeing Charles Muntz’ famous discovery, Paradise Cove. We watch them struggle to save money as life keeps getting in the way. (“They keep smashing the promise glass because they keep getting run down.”) As they get to their golden years (“They are grandparents. They are so old.”) Carl has finally bought their tickets to Argentina, only for Ellie to get sick and die. This is where Andrew and I lost our cool in front of each other 10 years ago. The score is so moving it would be impossible not to feel something. Lila is moved (“So she’s dying? Oh, she’s dead.”) but quickly gets distracted by a good laugh at the stairlift getting stuck half way down the stairs.
Carl and Ellie’s dream house is being encroached on by a new five-story building. Literally trying to push Carl out of the last bit of life he shared with his love. But Carl seems unfazed; he will not be selling. When Russell, an eight-year-old Wilderness Explorer, shows up to offer his help to Carl in order to gain his last Wilderness Explorer badge “assisting the elderly,” Carl sends him away on a snipe hunt. (“Is he lying about the snipe?”) But then Carl’s mailbox, the one he made with Ellie in the earlier montage, is hit by a construction worker and Carl becomes upset. The construction worker tries to fix it and refuses to hear Carl’s cries of “No. Stop. Don’t touch that.” In a fit of loss and frustration, Carl hits the construction worker over the head, resulting in a court appearance and a mandate to move to an assisted living home.
Lila hates this part. She starts crying so hard we have to stop the movie. (“He should have listened! Why is it Carl’s fault when that guy didn’t listen?”) What I want to say is if someone doesn’t listen to you when you say those words, please do crack his head open… but I hold my tongue and pocket the conversation for later because I’m ready to talk about death; I am not ready for a talk about consent. I leave it at: Lila, your feelings about the situation are absolutely correct; it is not fair. We all need to listen to other’s words. Thankfully, the next scene is the releasing of the balloons to lift the house out of its urban setting. (“Whoa?!? Everyone is like what-what?”) So we were finally off on the adventure part.
Act two is when the challenges arise. Russell is back; he was hiding under the porch stairs and now desperately wants into the house. But let’s not think too hard about how impossible it would be for one to stay with the house as it’s pulled off its foundation. That ruins the fun. Just as Carl is trying to solve the problem of his stowaway Russell, the problem of a storm hits and the two must sail through it. (“I’m scared. Everything is a mess. I would be so upset if this happened to my bedroom.”) They land in Argentina, but opposite Ellie’s ideal spot by the waterfall. The two decide to hike the house around to its intended location. As they walk they adopt a large bird that Russell names Kevin, We meet a talking dog named Dug who claims Kevin as his prisoner and joins them on their long trek to the falls. Carl’s mission is impeded further by the introduction of the gang of dogs who are hunting the bird. So now they’re hunting our group of misfits. Kevin escapes the dog gang’s initial attack by hiding on the roof the house, but the dogs claim the rest and insist they come meet their master. (Meanwhile Lila is giggling and getting all sentimental. “Remember when they were kids? And Ellie said, “You don’t talk much, I like you.’” “Remember the guy who got kicked out of being an explorer? He had dogs.” “I like dogs but those dogs are mean.” “Can I have a snack?”)
Act three brings it all together, though in a predictable way. Why yes, the dogs do belong to the famous explore, Charles Muntz. (“Knew it!”) Carl is thrilled to meet him, and he is a gracious host inviting them in for a tour of his collection and dinner on his Zeppelin, “Spirit of Adventure.” (“I feel like he’s tricking them.”) Charles tells them over dinner how he has made it his life’s work to hunt Kevin… and it all gets dark real quick. Charles has killed anyone who he presumed threatened his claim on this creature. (“WHAT? He kills people?!?”) Carl realizes they are in danger and does his best to exit gracefully, but Russell, being eight and distracted by a gaggle of dogs, tells Charles all about Kevin. Charles is now a serious threat to their life and Carl and Russell have to make a desperate escape with Dug and Kevin in tow. They successfully escape, and Carl has decided to help Kevin get back to her chicks—oh ya Kevin is a mom. Just as the group feels they are safely to the entrance of Kevin’s home, Charles entraps her in a net and sets Carl’s house on fire. When Carl is forced to make a choice between Kevin and his house, he chooses his house and Charles hauls off Kevin. (“IT’S NOT YOUR BIRD! It’s the wildernesses! I don’t want him to do this.”) Russell is equally upset and blames Carl of giving Kevin away. (“He didn’t give Kevin away!”) Carl continues on his mission to deliver the house with a reluctant Russell and, upon arrival, sets his house down in its intended place, sets his chairs in place (“Time to organize your house. There is a lot of cleaning to do. Is he not going to clean it?!?”), sits down, and opens Ellie’s scrapbook. Carl, and maybe the viewer, had assumed that her book ended with the dream of Paradise Cove and the title page “Stuff I’m Going to Do” but, lo and behold, it’s filled with pictures of the life she had with Carl and a message. (“Thanks for the adventure. Now go have a new one. Love Ellie.”) Lila is crying again. I am, too.
In act four, Russell runs away to save Kevin with some balloons and a leaf blower. Carl flies after him in the house, now lightened by ridding it of all its possessions. Russell gets captured by Charles in his attempt to save Kevin. Carl tethers the house, to the Zeppelin (“Save Russell. Save Russell. Save Russell.”) and boards to rescue Russell. A fight sequence commences. (“He’s a killer. A MURDER!”) But Carl is able to rescue Russell and Kevin. Dug becomes top dog and Charles ends up falling to his death with great cheering from Lila. In the process, the house floats away and Lila is sobbing again. (“The house was Ellie and she is gone!” From the mouth of babes, y’all.)
In act five, all the players return to their lives before. Kevin is returned to her family of chicks. Carl and Russell sail home in the Zeppelin. Russel receives his hard-won Wilderness Explorer badge for assisting the elderly, Carl gets the honor of award him with Ellie’s soda cap pin, and a new life, new adventures, new friendships.
I really enjoyed this re-viewing. The score is astounding. Michael Giacchino won a much-deserved Oscar for it. (He was also the composer for the game series Medal of Honor and Call of Duty, Rogue One, a ton of JJ Abrams stuff including “Lost,” Pixar classics like Inside Out—so good!—Jurassic World, Doctor Strange, so much great work! He has an Emmy and a few Grammys. I hate emotionally manipulative scores, the kind that make you feel things that you do not want to feel, but Michael Giacchino does an amazing job of making every musical beat feel authentic.
The movie effectively balances the sad and the humorous. Every time I thought I had lost Lila into darkness, the very next scene would make her giggle and laugh. The visual storytelling is smart for the adults and really colorful for the children. Even Lila commented on all the wider shots of the empty rooms, cups, and chairs that Ellie use to occupy and how sad they were. (“They feel extra empty.”)
My favorite metaphor is the balloons and the house. In the opening scene, Carl has named his balloon “Spirit of Adventure” after Charles Muntz’ zeppelin. Ellie has named the abandoned house she plays in the same. Then Carl joins the two in order to fulfill his hero’s quest and, in the end, Carl has to let go of the balloons and the house, the marriage of their ideas, dreams, and the “spirit” of their adventure together. It sounds so heavy-handed, just like the idea of a hero’s quest or the five-act play does. But the brilliance in Up is it just isn’t. It subverts our idea of what a hero’s quest is by making our hero a 70-year-old man. The hero’s guide/mentor is an eight-year-old kid. It uses the five-act format to give this quest the weight of a Shakespearean comedy. The symbols are there only if you want to look for them. This makes it both entertaining and heartfelt for kids and adults.
Lila’s take was that it was “hilarious but exhausting.” She however would not recommend it to anyone because it will make them very sad and cry. But the thing is, the movie came at a perfect time for her development. She has had some distant relatives die, knows about death, but hasn’t had to experience it personally yet.
This viewing was rough for her. She cried a lot. She experienced a profound loss with characters she grew to know and love. As I stated in a previous review (Curious George), there is nowhere safer to feel and process these intense feelings than in the arms of your mother. To feel them fully in a safe environment and be reassured that these feelings ARE painful but they pass and are an important part of life. We were able to feel the feelings and talk about death with lower stakes than when, in the fated future, someone she knows and loves dies.
We can’t live a life without loss. To love is to lose, and I want her to always have the strength and vulnerability to love with her whole heart no matter the inevitability of loss or death. So this is not a movie I would recommend putting on for the kids and walking away, but it is a funny and beautiful way to start a conversation with your children about death. And how to be your own hero in a time of great sorrow.
– The house surrounded by new urban development shares similarities with Edith Macefield’s house in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, WA. She was offered $750,000 dollars for her 108-year-old house by a developer and refused to sell, making her a local hero. The developer decided to build the five-story building around her property. She became friends with the construction superintendent, Barry Martin, who ended up caring for her in the last years of her life. She ended up giving the house to him after her death. You can read about Martin’s account of their friendship in his book Under One Roof: Lessons I Learned from a Tough Old Woman in a Little Old House.
– In act three as Carl and Russel are escorting Kevin back home, Russell shares how much he misses time with his dad, how they use to sit on a curb and count red and blue cars, and he says, “That might sound boring, but I think the boring stuff is the stuff I remember the most.” I love when movies have thesis statements. Every boring part of our day can be special and an adventure if we are grateful for it. Maybe even laundry.
– Carl goes through quite a transformation from an arthritic old man with a cane, to a stubbly, windswept old man, skidding and sliding across zeppelins. (“Ya! Do it old man. He’s doing it! He’s so brave.”) Just really driving home the transformative power of the hero’s journey.
– The stair lift scene in the first act gets redone in the fourth act with Russell sliding across the glass of the Zeppelin’s control room, stopping briefly, and sliding out of frame. Lila laughed just as hard the second time around.
— Sadie Rose