Up!

We saw Up! on Friday.

It’s a lovely film; funny, endearing, moving, and sweet. What stood out for me, aside from all the tears (I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much during an animated movie) was the audacity of the filmmakers.

Although Up! was developed before Disney bought Pixar, the distribution deal was in place and Pixar knew that Up!, like the rest of its movies, would be marketed as a children’s movie and would be sold by Disney as lighthearted Summer fare. Knowing that,  Pixar set about telling the story of an aging retiree dulled by despair and longing.

Yes, there’s adventure and funny birds and talking dogs and jokes and antics aplenty,but at it’s core, Up! is a movie about an old man coming to terms with grief, loss and the shadows of deferred dreams and unfulfilled promises. That it can be all that and still deliver all the laughs and chuckles that the target ten-year old audience expects is, well… it’s incredible.

As in Wall-E, the first twenty minutes are largely silent and serve to anchor the arc of the film in an emotional context. And like Wall-E, the major themes are loneliness, companionship, courage, and love. I liked Wall-E quite a lot, but as with most animation, the emotional core of Wall-E, lovely though it is, is thin and brittle.

Good cartoons succeed by humanizing their characters as much as possible; the movie succeeds to the extent that the audience can identify with Wall-E”s loneliness, Shrek’s alienation, Eric Cartman’s self-absorption, Ariel’s conflict, or Homer’s obliviousness.  But cartoons are… cartoonish. Their subjects are characters painted in sharp relief with hard lines and little nuance: they are abstractions drawn to serve narrow purposes. Characters in even the best cartoons have very little depth. That’s OK, because that’s generally the point. The abstraction of a cartoon allows the creators to isolate elements of human nature present a highly stylized and abstract story.

Wall-E is lonely because he’s the only sentient creature on Earth. But Wall-E isn’t troubled by the anger or desperation that plagues Robert Neville. Homer is a buffoon without the added pathos of an actor’s persona that transforms characters like John Belushi’s John Blutarsky or Chris Farley’s Tommy. Shrek is alien and “ugly” in a sterile, simple way that John Merrick is not. Ariel is troubled by her longing for her prince, but is free of the deep sexuality of Daryl Hannah’s Madison.

The abstraction of cartoons lends itself to grand scales and harsh contrasts. Wall-E is alone in a world of trash. Ariel is a fish. Shrek is an ogre. Just as cartoons simplify and abstract human qualities to pare the characters down to simple essences, cartoons tend to exaggerate circumstances and conflicts. These are differences in style that are accentuated by medium. The abstraction of cartoons is not  flaw, it’s a feature. Flattening characters and stretching plots allow writers and artists to narrow their focus.

Which is what makes Up! all the more remarkable. Carl Fredrickson is an abstract representation of sapping, eroding despair. He is a character grayed by time and grief. And while he is still certainly a cartoon abstraction, his history is filled and rounded. His grief is compounded and complicated by the little losses and troubles that beset everyone; the petty details of life that derail plans and projects are not embellished or stretched, they simply happen. He does not wallow in his grief, he is not reduced to a caricature or simpleton. Rather he endures, and we feel his longing in the way he places his palm against a mailbox or the way he dusts his mantle.

Carl is simply sad. He’s not sad because the world is dying, or because he will be ripped forever from his homeland by magic. He’s not sad because society shuns and disowns him, and he’s not sad for being a failure. He’s sad because his wife died. He is no less abstract than Wall-E or Shrek or Ariel, but he is much more human. His grief is a human grief, his sorrow is a human sorrow, and while the journey he takes out of sorrow is fantastic, his adventures only serve to highlight his troubles. In the end, he eases his sorrow with as simple an act as can be imagined.

There might be snipes and talking dogs and flying houses, but that’s all mere fantasy; like finding patterns in passing clouds,  it’s a diversion and a joy. But the movie, for all its soaring flights is anchored by the simplest of human relationships: a man’s love for his wife, the need of a child for security and safety, the love a dog has for his master.

Up! is the simplest, most grounded, movie that Pixar has made yet and it’s wonderful.

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