UP is a typical Disney product: which is to say that it is goofily funny and thoroughly, unashamedly sentimental. It is also a Pixar product, which means it is it is witty, clever and technically sophisticated. Above all, it is an American movie, so you know right from the start that you are in for an upbeat, moralising experience. More specifically, you know that the movie will deliver a message, and that the message will most likely be the time-honoured hold-on-to-your-dream, be-true-to-your-family, you-can-always-be-a-kid romanticism that has made Hollywood such an effective purveyor of opiate for the masses.
Except that it is not. What struck me about UP was that, though it is funny, upbeat and sentimental, it is in the end also a very sad film. Though its visual effects and artistry are ‘magical,’ gorgeously picturesque and charming, its main concern is not with ‘living your dream’ but with relinquishing it; not with holding on to youth but letting it go.
As in the case of some of the other movies I have reviewed on this blog, much of its impact pivots on the way in which it uses the visual language of animation to create its imaginary world. In a way, I suppose, the film that UP most clearly references in this respect is The Wizard of Oz: like Oz, the crucial dichotomy in the movie is between its beginning in the quotidian real world, grey and grim, and the way the plot is suddenly relocated — literally by way of a leap into the sky — into a technicolour dreamworld. In this particular case, much of the charm of the film lies in the kooky, zany world the art of the animation allows us to enter. There’s a lot of absolutely standard Disneyesque fare – the broad comedy of Charles Muntz’s pack of dogs, for instance. But the film goes well beyond that, and takes us on a truly surreal flight of fancy. One moment we are watching Carl Frederickson ease grimly, resignedly into his day on a wonky Stairlift; a few minutes we are seeing a grumpy old man trudge through the jungle, towing behind him a fat Asian-American boy, a motor-mouthed dog… and a house, suspended in the sky by a multicoloured cloud of helium balloons. The loopiness becomes truly florid when the boy and the dog befriend a huge iridescent tropical bird – a kind of outsize Seuss-look cross between an ostrich and a dodo, which falls in love with the boy Russel, attempts to swallow Carl’s walking cane, and is given to huge, wailing, passionate cries for no discernable reason. We have left behind not only ordinary reality but also the cutesy world of Disneyland. What is being referenced here is not Jungle book or Oz, but the rather more fey, surreal, cartoonish fantasyland of Krazy Kat. Krazy Kat is the moment at which American cartoons left popular culture behind and turned into something far more philosophical-poetical; and the surreal visuals of UP works in a similar way to signal that we are now in much more complex metaphorical territory.
So just what is Carl up to here? Dealing with his unlived life, is what; and it is this that gives the movie its particular mix of uplifting positivity and sadness. The most interesting aspect of the film is the contrast between the visual madness of the journey across the rocks towards paradise falls and the story of age, unacted desire and loss tersely summarized in its first few minutes. The point film very effectively makes in the initial set-up is not only that Carl is settling grumpily into old age; it is that we know his crusty testiness is a defense against loneliness and pain. We know that the loss of his and Elly’s dream – flying off into adventure, visiting Paradise Falls – is but part of a greater loss; the loss, firstly of Elly herself; but also the loss of what their marriage could have been. We are never told what went wrong with Elly’s pregnancy, but this is the moment at which the tone of the film is set: the images whirl past, the story of a young marriage economically told in an overlay of images (I thought of Buster Keaton’s Johnny and Anabelle at the end of The General) – and suddenly we are seeing them in the obstetrician’s office: Elly’s being comforted; they’ve lost the baby; and though we see them settle into a kind of happiness, it is the thin happiness of the childless couple, making a life for themselves after the future they’ve seen in the clouds has been taken away. A sad and grown-up note to strike in the middle of an animated feature; and the artistry 0f UP lies in the way it bridges this moment of loss with the dizzy adventures that follow.
So: what, in mythopoeic terms, is Carl’s task? The risk for him is that he dies, never having fully entered into life. He has to make his soul, on his own, as a grown man, without his childhood hero and without his Elly; he has to embark on the journey traveled by of Dorothy in Oz -and of Chihiro, Coraline and Ofelia, and of Alice. He he has to enter into relation with the dreamworld: with desire, and with the powerful forces that slumber in himself, behind the facade of the mild, grumpy middle class man he seems to be. This is the first interesting thought thrown up by the movie: that while it might seem that the compromises Carl and Elly make — giving up on their dream of traveling to South America, putting their savings instead to the demands of adult, capitalist life — are adult choices, realistic ones… these choices also mean that Carl at least, is ‘stuck’ in time; or stuck in relation to the dream. It remains a dream, idealised and unchanging, symbolized most evocatively in the movie by Elly’s scrapbook of her plans to travel to Paradise Falls; after the page titled ‘ Stuff I am going to do’, the film suggests, the book is blank; the acts unacted.
And the second interesting thought is that to live your dream, to act it out, is to lose it. This is what Charles Muntz, the great explorer never realises: in love with his image of himself, he is stuck in perpetual narcissistic adolescence: his self-contained existence with his army of slavish dogs is not admirable at all but faintly ridiculous. And that’s what Carl too has to learn. When he finally arrives (he thinks) at the end of his journey, mission accomplished, it is a moment of anti-climax. We know that he is wrong: we know his real mission is not to act out his promise to Elly, but to help Russel save the bird from the clutches of the horrid Muntz. Didn’t he cross his heart? He sits down in his easy chair to look through Elly’s book – and he realises he misunderstood her. The pages in the last part of the book are not blank after all. The book is full: it is filled with pictures. She had her life –but he has not had his, not all of it. His last job is to relinquish her and to be true — not to the past, but to his promises to the living.
The conclusions are interesting and complex. You should not give up your dreams, the movie seems to say, because if you do, they will never let you go. You should act on them; enter the dreamworld. But what that will give you is not a spot by Paradise falls, but your bum on a kerbstone, watching cars pass by, sharing an ice cream with a winsome, garrulous, enthusastic boy. The blue bird of happiness, the film suggests, is never where you think it is. It is eight feet tall, ungainly, and completely flightless: its cry is a preposterous yawp of love; name is Kevin, and he’s a she. On no account ever try to capture it. Feed it chocolates, and defend its freedom to disappear into the labyrinth where no-one else can follow. You will be rewarded with danger, and craziness, unpredictability. And you just might make some new friends. I’m in.